Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Black Sheep (King 2006)

Perhaps October is just the wrong month to watch Black Sheep, Jonathan King’s 2006 sci-fi-horror-comedy. I suggest this because nothing is particularly bad about the film itself, at least that I can easily identify. The film, about genetically altered sheep that go bad, delivers exactly what it promises, and indeed goes the extra step of honestly trying to craft a real emotional core to the story beyond the insane premise. October for me tends to be a month of eerie and unexplainable horror, which the science fiction explanation of the film does not really meld with. So maybe the problem is just me.

Or perhaps, maybe Black Sheep suffers from one tiny problem: it is not distinguished enough from other horror films to make it memorable or unique. Yes, the killer sheep angle has not been done, and it offers for some memorable humour, but really the sheep are a substitute for another form of flesh eating terror, zombies. Indeed, replace sheep with zombies, and not too many alterations would have to be made to the film. Its pro-vegetarian themes could easily be kept, and the theme of abandoning one’s roots would only lose the “black sheep” motif with regards to the main threat of the film.

The film is the story of Henry Oldfield (Nathan Meister), who returns to the family farm in time to sell his share of it to his brother Angus (Peter Feeney), who has made a fortune in investing in agricultural science. Both sons are haunted by the death of their father during their childhood, a farmer who raised sheep. Angus is preparing to turn the area into a breeding ground for his new brand of genetically altered sheep. Things take a turn for the worse when a pair of animal activists, Grant (Oliver Driver) and Experience (Danielle Mason) accidentally release one the failed experiments to create the sheep during a search for evidence, resulting in all hell breaking loose.

All the elements are here for a fun horror romp, but the film never manages to be as fun as it wants to be. The film is never truly terrifying or all that funny, but ends up being passable. The question of course is why it never manages to become more than the sum of its parts, as the direction, acting and effects work are certainly in place.

The best way to understand the downfall of the film is to compare it to the masterpiece of horror comedy from this decade, Shaun of the Dead (Wright 2004). Along with being masterfully scripted and directed, building small details layered into the film into major payoffs, Shaun of the Dead is the success it is because it is willing to go for the throat on an emotional level. At no point does Shaun of the Dead offer its characters easy ways out of their situations, both personal and in terms of the larger zombie threat. Shaun (Simon Pegg) has to come to terms with his needing to grow up and the loss of those he considers family and friends. In part because of this pain that the characters and audience are put through that the humour becomes more potent, as it plays off a very real sense of horror.

Black Sheep, by contrast, all too often allows its characters to dodge harsh situations. People who become weresheep (you read that right) have a way out. Looking like a likeable character is going to die? There is a way out of that. Is there hard, emotional baggage coming to a head with your brother? There is a way out of confronting that. This results in a film that never really embraces the horror, and as a result the comedy and drama suffer.

To the films credit however, the film is an old fashioned special effects fan’s dream. Little CGI is deployed in the film, relying instead upon classic practical effects, provided by WETA, the New Zealand special effects company that long ago surpassed ILM. The gore is of a quality that would make George Romero proud, and there is a transformation sequence that, while not being as great as the werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf in London (Landis 1981), is in the same vein and highly effective.

Furthermore, there are plenty of great jokes that do make an appearance in Black Sheep, and Jonathan King is a capable director that clearly has a great film in him. However, Black Sheep seems more like a lead up to a better effort down the road, the practice before the performance. I can recommend Black Sheep as worth a viewing at least once, but one with which a good dose of keeping expectations in check is in order.

Than again, maybe I just watched it in the wrong month.

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