Under the Radar: Genre Movies You May Have Missed — Black Sheep

I love the mainstream, popular, and critically acclaimed films as much as the next person. The last thing I’d consider myself is a cinematic snob. But there are times when a truly amazing movie slips into—and out of—theaters without much buzz before fading into obscurity. So I’d like to bring a few of those gems back into the light and remind you that sometimes the blockbusters aren’t the only films that can give you plenty of bang for your buck. Last time, we looked at Evolution, and this week we'll be discussing Black Sheep (2006).

Black Sheep is one of those films that you hear described and can pretty much only say: “What?” I mean, who looks at a sheep and think, “Yes. That’s just what my horror film needs. Mutated sheep hungry for human flesh!” The tagline alone is a winner:

There are 40 million sheep in New Zealand, and THEY’RE PISSED OFF!

Yes, it’s utterly ludicrous—and not to be confused with that comedy featuring Chris Farley and David Spade. But a horror movie doesn’t need a plausible plot to be entertaining; in fact, I’d say 85% of the horror industry wouldn’t exist if every film took itself seriously and adhered to logic.

New Zealand is pretty much known for two things: Lord of the Rings (and, by proxy, Peter Jackson) and sheep. So it makes sense that Black Sheep should play off both of those. It features, as the title suggests, murderous sheep. And the special effects come courtesy of the WETA Workshop, the company (founded by Peter Jackson) that provided all of those orcs and trolls and Hobbit feet in Lord of the Rings.

So when it comes to Kiwi films, you’d be hard pressed to find one that’s more inherently “New Zealand” than this one.

The film centers on a fellow by the name of Henry Oldfield (Nathan Meister). As a child, Henry was a skilled shepherd following in his farmer father’s footsteps—until his older brother Angus (Peter Feeney) pulled a very bloody prank and scarred him for life.

Fast-forward fifteen years and Henry, now wracked with ovinaphobia, returns to the family farm to sell his portion to the ambitious Angus. He arrives the day Angus intends to show off his new breed of sheep to international agriculturalists; and, as luck would have it, the day a pair of environmental protestors intend to blow the lid off of Angus’s illegal genetic experimentation.

Things go rather woolly when one of the protestors steals a mutated sheep fetus, only for the creature to attack him and then spread its bloodlust to the flock peacefully grazing nearby. Infected by the sheep-y plague, the environmentalist blunders off, leaving his sort-of-girlfriend Experience (Danielle Mason) to cross paths with Henry and farm manager Tucker (Tammy Davis), who are out on a tour of the pastures. The three soon realize that the once placid ewes have developed a taste for flesh—and that their bites have unusual side effects.

Can Henry overcome his crippling fear of fleeces in time to save the ancestral farm? Will the vegan, New Age-y Experience be able to set aside her “do no harm” beliefs in order to kick some tail? Are our heroes up to the task of stemming the sheepish tide of brutality before it infects the whole of New Zealand?

I’d apologize for all of the atrocious puns, but nothing could be more in keeping with this film. There are weresheep, for heaven’s sake, that are repulsed by mint sauce the way vampires recoil from holy water! Animal flatulence is a key plot-point! Mad scientists in lab coats are tackled by sheep—and believe me, you haven’t truly lived until you’ve seen a man tackled by a bellowing sheep.

For all that this movie is patently ridiculous, it’s still a legitimately good movie. The acting is surprisingly great, with some solid emotional moments amidst the gore and silliness. The sweeping green hills of New Zealand make for a beautiful and evocative background. Plus, you can’t go wrong with the “mad scientist/mutated animals run amok” premise when it comes to horror comedies.

And when it comes to gore, nothing can really top the WETA Workshop. For those not familiar with Peter Jackson’s early work before he catapulted to fame with his classy Lord of the Rings masterpieces, Jackson cut his directing eyeteeth on splatterstick horror. His first films, particularly Bad Taste and Dead Alive (originally released as Braindead), hold distinctions for being some of the goriest—and most disgusting—movies ever made. In fact, Dead Alive still holds the record as bloodiest film ever thanks to its climactic lawnmower scene.

So when your screenplay calls for intestine flinging, face ripping, and limb mutating special effects, the folks at WETA know what they’re doing. They favor prosthetics, makeup, and animatronic puppets over CGI—which always age far better and lend a nice solid texture to the carnage. It’s just damn impressive what a good special effects artist can do. Like turn a sheep into a bloodthirsty maniac and a man into a sheep.

Black Sheep may not be Oscar bait, but it sure is a lot of fun. After living in New Zealand for several months, watching this film always gives me a nice nostalgic glow. (And to answer your questions: yes, there really are that many sheep there; yes, the hills really are that green and beautiful; and yes, it really is Middle-Earth.)

If you like your horror gory but also with a well-developed funny bone, track down this Kiwi gem. It’s a perfect film for a party with a boisterous group because the glory that is man-eating sheep should be shared with as many people as possible. Plus, it would go great with a side of mutton.

Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”

Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.

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