by Jeff Meyers
What is it about New Zealanders? Watching Jonathan King's mutant flesh-eating sheep movie, one wonders whether Peter Jackson's early gross-out films (Dead Alive, Meet the Feebles, Bad Taste) were the chicken or the egg. Either fellow Kiwis have an appetite for gory gagfests like Black Sheep or director King is hoping his tale of cloven-hoofed murderers will put him behind the lens of the next hobbit flick.
But treading in Jackson's subversive footsteps is no easy feat. Few directors can take characters we care about and dunk them into a depraved stew of visceral horror, gore-filled comedy and ruthless satire. Though it never reaches the inspired heights of Dead Alive, King's skillful but deranged mash-up of grade-Z zombie horror is remarkably effective at producing both bone-deep creeps and moronically funny jokes. It's amazing how much comedy you can milk from sheep standing on a lush green hillside staring dumbly at their next victim. Better still is the scene where a homicidal sheep flops into the front seat of an out-of-control truck and screams, "Ba-a-a-a," as it careens off a cliff.
But are the fluffy flesh-eaters scary? Kind of. Jackson's effects house works overtime to give King demented puppets, snarling weresheep and Dumpsters' worth of fake guts with which to play.
Though its plot hardly matters, Black Sheep follows Henry Oldfield (Nathan Meister), who has returned to his father's wool farm years after a traumatic childhood experience left him terrified of sheep. He soon discovers that older brother Angus (Peter Feeney) has genetically engineered a super-sheep, which inadvertently creates a man-eating herd of them who can turn people into sheep-monsters with their bite. Partnered with a cute-as-a-button hippie chick (Danielle Mason), Henry struggles to not only survive, but to stop the woolly infection from spreading.
It's a gleefully ridiculous premise, and King starts things off surprisingly low-key, letting the absurdities steadily pile on top of one another. There's zero pretense to what he's trying to accomplish and, before you know it, tongue-in-cheek horror and deliciously cartoonish gore take over. Unfortunately, the movie starts to deteriorate a little past the halfway mark as the story begins to lose track; introducing a mad scientist, giant sheep monsters and even a bit of ovine shagging. What should've built to a simple but effective standoff turns into an overly hectic third act that relies on airplane propellers, a miracle serum and flatulence to save its heroes.
With the success of films like Shaun of the Dead and Bong Joon-ho's terrific The Host, the line between comical and creepy is giving way to a productive subgenre of horror. It's certainly not for everyone, but if the thought of two sheep wrestling over a wailing priest's intestines cracks you up, Black Sheep may be just what the doctor ordered.
Opens Friday, Aug. 3, at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.