Review: Black Sheep

Posted by Peter Hall - July 15th 2007 @ 6:05 pm

Written and Directed by Jonathan King, 2006

Genetically engineered sheep, released inadvertently by activists, not only overrun a small Kiwi town, but any human bitten turns into some insane kind of weresheep?  Self-aware limits with a no-shame script?  Early Peter Jackson aspirations with a contemporary, Oscar winning P. Jackson’s WETA workshop doing the makeup effects?  All sounds like a riot, no?

Well, it isn’t.  It pains me to shred Indie horror, especially  those efforts with grand ambitions and all hearts in the right places.  Black Sheep does contain smiles, but more sympathetic cringes and even more lengthy stretches of generic viewer indifference.  Because of its promising premise, it would be easy to get excited under the right circumstances, but  unless you either only watch movies with the best of alcohol buzzes going on or only at festivals that live to screen things like Black Sheep those conditions are not likely to be met.

The make up effects are fantastic, especially on the various aspects of weresheepery, but both Jonathan King’s script and direction are poorly timed.  Not only that, but even the poor timing is poorly executed.  The resultant disappointment is a mishmash of ineffective gags and linearly declining interest in character as well as story.

One could argue cultural incompatibility, but I’m not buying it.  I’m sure there is some, if not plenty of, local New Zealand nuance I’m never going to get as a dumb Yank, but in-jokes do not a good movie make.  You still need interesting characters and a sustainable 90 minutes, which Black Sheep plants but never reaps.

It opens promisingly enough with a building 20 or so minutes in which we see the hero, Henry, traumatized by his older brother, Angus, who slaughters the youngster’s favorite sheep.  An adulthood later, Henry returns to the family farm on the eve of Angus’ introduction of the aforementioned genetic experimentation.  Hours before Angus’ exhibition a hippie named Experience and her stereotypical, tree-hugging non-boyfriend try to liberate some incriminating legal evidence from the lab.  From there things waffle back and forth on the edge of success.

To his credit King handles the genre defining scenes with a telling fondness.  He goes for in-camera effects at every possible opportunity.  The quality of the practical makeup is truly awesome, especially when transformations take place, but that isn’t enough to save Black Sheep from completely falling over the edge. 

Its a concept movie that surely went into production on its pitch line alone, "There are more sheep than people in New Zealand, what if they were all zombie sheep?!"  And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that pitch (Snakes on a Plane pulled off its simplicity) but it never does anything to fall in love with aside from the effects.  Hell, not even to just simply like as a friend.  It’s pacing is well off the mark, the intended comedy offset by disinterest.

I will give Jonathan King this: He made a great festival/cult movie.  In a crowded theater where the enthusiasm is palpable and the laughter contagious, I’m sure the antics of insane sheep will play wonderfully enough to overshadow all cinematic short comings.  I admit I’d of loved to have seen it in this very scenario, but in any smaller setting where the large social aspect is gone, the flick will simply crumble under the unintentionally closer scrutiny inherent to the living room. 

Black Sheep is the exact kind of movie you could conceivably watch once, think to yourself that you love it and then forget about it only to come across it a year later and fondly plop down for a watch.  Half way through I guarantee the thought bubble above your head will read, "I remember liking this more…"  I, however, never had that memory and instead skipped right to the, "I remember thinking this was going to be a lot better" stage. 

Given enough of the right people and a big enough place, Black Sheep will sell.  But a movie should never be contingent on any audience requisite to hold up; yet this needful monkey-on-the-back is one Black Sheep unfortunately never shakes off.  Tagging it bad, however, may border on the harsh side considering its jovial nature.  I go with my gut though and my gut has experienced far better jovialation by equally youthful productions.

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