Black Sheep

Hear the one about the kiwi bloke and the ewe?

Who hasn’t. Black Sheep writer/director Jonathan King — along with every other born and bred New Zealander — is so aware of it he couldn’t make a comedy about sheep in rural New Zealand and not write in one sheep-shagging joke, oblique though it is.

It may not immediately seem at home in a horror film, but Black Sheep is no ordinary horror film. We’ve seen zombies, sharks, werewolves and even androids tear hapless victims limb from limb, but this is the first film to contain mass disembowelling by ovine farm animal.

So as you’ve probably guessed, Black Sheep is a comedy-horror. Unlike a lot of comic films where the characters are only too ready to nudge and wink at the audience, Black Sheep takes a refreshing tack. In the finest tradition of the Zucker brothers’ Flying High, Top Secret and other classic earth spoof comedies, King has his cast play it completely straight. Black Sheep is at times a genuinely scary film, but mostly the comedy is gleefully mined from the ridiculous premise and the characters in it.

"I always wanted you to be laughing with the movie," King says from across the short stretch of the Pacific Ocean, "but never laughing at the movie, not having anyone in the film smarter than the audience, or smarter than the movie itself. As I always said to the actors, it’s going to be funny when you play it straight, play it for real. If you’re trying to be funny or you’re going ‘isn’t this wacky?’ it just diminishes where the comedy’s coming from rather than improving it.

The story of a sprawling sheep farm where sinister genetic experiments unleash the horror of flocks of sheep with a taste for human flesh, it was a tricky divide between making Black Sheep universal and keeping the regional tone King felt was essential. Particularly when — to make big money — you have to appeal to American audiences, and Americans generally seem… less discerning with comedy than Australian, Brits and New Zealanders.

"In Australia and New Zealand there’s an outrageous sort of humour and we go to places Americans may not," King thinks. "It means you get films with a different flavour from the straight-down-the-line kind of American approach but they can still appeal to people in those markets. Black Sheep would have been a weaker film if we’d diluted the ‘New Zealand-ness’ from it, so it’s kind of a paradox. The more specific you make something to a place, the more it can appeal widely."

King also follows in the footsteps of another very famous former DIY kiwi filmmaker who’s since conquered the world with hobbits and giant gorillas. He didn’t get to meet Peter Jackson during filming but worked closely with Jacksons’s right hand creature man, Richard Taylor of Weta workshop.

"I live in the same town as him," King says in describing how he got an Oscar winner involved in his little horror movie, "so I said ‘I’d love you to have a look and see what you think’. He read it and said he loved it and wanted to be involved which we were really, really grateful for, because they were in the middle of King Kong at that stage and we couldn’t have made the film without their help really. They brought a huge amount of experience and talent and imagination to it."

It’s imagination and talent that’s worked. Its sounds like a one-joke comedy that goes on way too long and yes, there are a few inevitable lags once the joke ‘begins’ , but Black Sheep is an inventive film that’s easy to like. When city slicker Henry (Meister) returns to the farm of his childhood to claim his share of the property from his brother Angus (Feeney), his phobia of sheep threatens to overwhelm him and he only wants to get his cheque and leave.

Unbeknown to all but a small group of scientists, Angus has started bizarre genetic mutation research, and when a pair of trespassing hippies, Grant and Experience (Mason) accidentally release a carnivorous, mutated lamb from a toxic waste jar in one of the movie’s funniest scenes, all hell breaks loose as the mutation gets out. It turns anybody infected or bitten into the fearsome were-sheep (yes they sound ridiculous but believe it or not provide many of the film’s genuine scares) and turns the sheep themselves into hungry, angry, bloodthirsty monsters.

Worse still, Angus is bringing a group of potential investors to the property to reveal what’s supposed to be his pride and joy (and the butt of the sheep shagging joke). It’s a recipe for disaster as Henry and Experience team up with ranch hand Tucker (Davis) and have to try to make it back to the house alive, the countryside roaming with crazed, woolly killers. But nastier surprises await them at the house and scientific bunker that’s home to Angus’ eggheads and their terrible secret.

It’s all great fun, lots of laughs and thanks to taut direction and editing and not dwelling too long on any one joke, Black Sheep doesn’t overstay it’s welcome as much as you fear it might.

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