Black Sheep (2006)

Black Sheep first published by Film4

Summary: Jonathan King’s uproarious comedy horror lets the genetically altered sheep of New Zealand show a less fluffy side. 

Review: “I knew that the British would get it in a special way,” declared Kiwi writer/director Jonathan King at Film4 FrightFest 2007 where his feature debut Black Sheep had just enjoyed its UK premiere. 

After all, there has long been a trafficking of ideas between the two island nations, and King has simply brought some of their shared interests together into one film. For here we have the sheep forever associated with both New Zealand and Wales, as well as the rom zom com sub-genre first unearthed in the antipodean Braindead (1992), and then transplanted to these isles in Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Boy Eats Girl (2005). Indeed, though it is set many thousand of miles away, Black Sheep is otherwise not so very far from the Irish mad cow horror of Dead Meat (2004) and Isolation (2005) – apart from the fact that its mutated livestock are ovine rather than bovine.

In a single day on the family sheep station, ten-year-old Henry Oldfield is traumatised by a prank involving the bloody corpse of a sheep, and learns of his father’s accidental death. Fifteen years later, a neurotic Henry (Nathan Meister) returns to the fold for the first time since those formative experiences, hoping to hand over his share of the property to his brother Angus (Peter Feeney) – and to face his irrational fear of the woolly ungulates. What he does not know is that Angus, helped by controversial scientist Dr Rush (Tandi Wright), has been mixing business with pleasure, performing some reckless genetic experiments on the animals in a bid to engineer the perfect sheep. 

When vegan animal rights activist Grant (Oliver Driver) unwittingly releases a mutant offcast into the woods, it rapidly spreads its infection through the sheep and human populations alike, turning any survivors into bleating carnivores. Soon all that stands between the growing flock of the undead and the rest of New Zealand is Grant’s slightly less dippy colleague Experience (Danielle Mason), no-nonsense farmhand Tucker (Tammy Davis), indomitable housekeeper Mrs Mac (Glenis Levestam) – and a terrified Henry whose every nightmare is turning to reality.

If sheep are inherently ridiculous creatures, then bloodthirsty homicidal ones, rendered with patient wrangling and some excellent WETA animatronics, are even more so. His film may be deliriously splattered in CG-free blood and gore (set off so nicely by all the fluffy white wool), but King plays out his nature’s revenge themes strictly for laughs, with comic-book characters, silly plotting, and jokes that come thick and fast. He may in fact have missed a trick: for part of what made An American Werewolf in London (reverently referenced here in a transformation sequence) or the Evil Dead franchise so memorably hysterical was their mixing in of genuine scares amongst all the humour. 

Still, even if genre fans might feel the absence of any real horror, Black Sheep is funny enough, and anyone watching it in a crowded cinema is more likely to be cackling than complaining at its endless succession of gags about the less savoury aspects of animal husbandry. Agri-capitalists, leftie do-gooders, conflicted vegans, mad scientists and zoophilic perverts are all lampooned with the broadest of strokes, and the film even ends with the mother of all fart jokes. There are few surprises, and the only ‘edge’ to be found here is a beautifully shot seaside cliff top, but Black Sheep certainly delivers on daftness – and coming in at under an hour and a half, it leaves plenty of time for the baa… 

Verdict: Like the ovine creatures that it features, Black Sheep is none too smart, but will certainly coat you in its fluffy warmth and put an affectionate smile on your face. Lacks much real bite, mind.

© Anton Bitel