The idea of the 'high concept’ movie - the type of film that can neatly be surmised in a sentence or two – is both reviled and loved by film fans. Essentially, boiling a film down to its component parts with an idea so brilliantly simple that will sell a film on its own can either be construed as pandering to the lowest common denominator or as a brilliant marketing ploy. Where you stand on this may well decide your opinion of New Zealand horror-comedy Black Sheep, one of the highest of high concept films released in recent times. It’s a zombie film. Just with sheep. Killer, mutant sheep.
The concept alone may well divide audiences down the middle - some viewers will faint with excitement at the simple mention of bloodthirsty sheep, while others will run screaming for their David Lynch box sets. If you were the type of 1980’s adolescent that saw their VCR as a portal into a world of flayed body parts, genetically engineered monstrosities and the occasional boob shot, the idea of a latter-day creature feature involving something so innocuous as our ovine friends is as close to nirvana as a fourth Evil Dead film. And on that level, at least, Black Sheep delivers in spades.
Leaving no horror cliché unturned, Black Sheep sees Henry, the prodigal son of a farmer (the… er... black sheep of the fold), returning to sell out his share of the farm he grew up on to his decidedly creepy brother, Angus. Due to a childhood phobia of sheep, Henry is determined to leave as soon as he gets the money, but thanks to a freak accident involving two hilariously inept animal rights protestors, he becomes embroiled in his brother’s plot to genetically engineer a super sheep – the downside of which being their rabid taste for human flesh and propensity for turning victims into cannibalistic weresheep.
Let’s not beat around the bush. The acting, script and plot of Black Sheep are often endearingly terrible. Every possible joke is squeezed out of the fluffy monsters, from methane gas emissions and sheep-shagging right through to an admittedly bravura gag involving mint sauce. The actors are mostly first-timers or New Zealand soap veterans, (with the exception of the evil brother, played by Peter Feeney, whose recent work includes Power Rangers DinoThunder and Possum Hunter), and while the acting is at best decidedly dodgy, they are an engaging enough bunch. But the real stars of the show are the flocks of rabid mutton tearing up and down panoramic hillsides – and it is they that lift this up into the pantheon of great comedy-horror films.
Black Sheep does not just wear its influences on its sleeve – it turns them into a sheepskin jacket and parades around like a mothballed football pundit. Foremost in writer/director Jonathan King’s mind is fellow countryman Peter Jackson’s early, low budget splatter fare Bad Taste and Braindead – and although this doesn’t quite have the same crazed invention as the King Kong director’s work, he certainly attains the same level of grotesque enthusiasm. Equally though, just about any monster movie gets a nod – from the werewolves of The Howling down to the genetics-gone-wrong of Re-animator.
Peter Jackson’s WETA special effects company must have had a field day creating the baa-ing beasties – one particularly brilliant transformation of a weresheep is a direct steal from An American Werewolf in London, and this is a welcome return of good old-fashioned prosthetics to horror, rather than the overly computer-generated effects of recent efforts like The Grudge 2 and 1408. The scene in which a flock of crazed sheep attack a bunch of foreign investors is one of the funniest – and vilest – scenes you’ll see in a cinema this year.
Of course, to many, this will sound like the kind of cinematic purgatory that usually only exists in Freddie Prince Jnr movies. However, there will be thousands of people up and down the country whose eyes will light up simply at the mention of the words 'killer sheep’, and Black Sheep will not disappoint them. Funny, nasty and actually possessing a heart of gold underneath its vicious fluffball exterior, this will be a guilty pleasure for any self-respecting splatter junkie.