After humans split the atom, praised their prowess, and started dropping nukes on each other, the effects of radiation merged with a brand new set of Cold War fears to reinvigorate the horror genre. While man vs. a monstrous nature had always been a well used cinematic subject, a new mutant scheme was introduced into the dynamic. It was fear of the unknown merged with mutually assured destruction. The results typically centered on oversized varmints destroying villagers or undermining metropolises. As the years progressed, the serious became schlocky, and by the ‘70s, ecology ruled the movie macabre. Films like Day of the Animals and Food of the Gods maintained the malformed mammal ideal, but they were often couched in a cautionary browbeating about abusing mother Earth. Since then, the premise has passed into joke, and then legend.
When he was a youth, Henry Oldfield experienced a pair of unexpected tragedies. His father died chasing an errant ewe off a seaside cliff, and his horrid brother Angus slaughtered his pet sheep. Fast forward 15 years and our hero is still a mess. He can barely interact with the livestock laden countryside without phoning his on-call therapist. Upon returning to the family farm, he discovers Angus has been experimenting with genetic engineering. The older sibling hopes to create a super-sheep that will lead them to untold riches. Unfortunately, three things are working against this business model. First, a pair of PETA-lite animal activists named Grant and Experience break into the compound and steal a sample of the sinister science. Second, Dr. April Rush’s research ethics are questionable at best. And finally, a fudged up sheep fetus is accidentally released into the population. Soon, the rams are ravenous, feasting on flesh and killing everyone and everything in sight. But the dead don’t stay that way for long. Seems such differing DNA likes to recombine with anything available – included rotting human remains.
Upon an initial viewing, audiences may start to suspect that Black Sheep will take forever to get to the body piercing. As character is established and circumstances are explained, the languid set up will seem like much ado about mutton. We keep waiting for the moment when these emblems of sleeplessness start bringing on the dirt naps. But there is a method to King’s mildness, a rational for taking it nice and easy. Even in a shortened cinematic running time, gore can grow repetitive very quickly. Unless you have a Troma level of gag invention, or simply feel the need to pour on more and more excremental excess, a 10th beheading will lack the punch of the first. So King decides to moderate his mania and make a real movie instead, using behind the scenes drama, icky experimentation, and long standing sibling rivalries to deliver us from the slice and dice doldrums. He even goes so far as to toss in a little romance, and some pro-critter political pronouncements as well.
During this down time, fans can enjoy some of the movie’s more subtle elements. It’s impossible to discuss Black Sheep without referencing New Zealand’s amazing landscape. It’s a literal dream come true, a patch of pure heaven accented with an incredible mountainous majesty and stunning country vistas. Like a travelogue for tourists who enjoy a smattering of splatter, King creates a real sense of place. Equally effective are the performances. Some of the players are new to Kiwi cinema (Nathan Meister as Henry, Danielle Mason as Experience) while others (Peter Feeny, Tammy Davis) are slightly more seasoned pros. Since the script is loaded with satiric swipes – mostly at the expense of genre standards – the acting really elevates such farce. Even better, we come to know and care for these individuals, wanting vengeance to be metered out to anyone – or anything – that does them wrong.
But once the wildlife goes goofy, Black Sheep piles on the putrescence and wallows in boatloads of blood. During a spectacular sequence where an outdoor presentation, loaded with international VIPS, is overrun by a stampede of killer creatures, faces are bitten off, limbs severed, necks garroted, and torsos torn asunder. Played for both giggles and gruesomeness, it’s a standout moment in a movie filled with them. Another amazing make-up tour de force comes when farm manager Tucker starts turning into a were-sheep. During the course of the conversion, something happens to stop the progress. We then get an outstanding physical rewind, highly reminiscent of Rob Bottin’s influence work in Joe Dante’s Innerspace. Indeed, much of the magic in this guts and glory goof is inspired directly by the man who helmed The Howling, and offered equally nasty prosthetics for John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Fincher’s sickening Se7en.
As part of the plentiful added content provided in this excellent digital package, King gets a chance to explain himself via a funny and very friendly full length audio commentary. Joined by actor Meister, both are ready to riff on everything that went wrong (and right) about this wooly magnum opus. It’s a nice, slightly nutty, narrative romp. The selection of deleted scenes (with additional director discussion) shows how clever King really was, and the blooper reel provides mandatory muffs. While an Early Morning Sunrise Scene (“shot specifically for DVD”, or so the cover art says) is rather dopey, the 30 minute Making-Of documentary is a delight. It gives us insight into the production process, including all the make-up and F/X work. It’s an outstanding explanation of how a small movie like this achieves a larger than life, big screen blockbuster look.
Movies like this aren’t flawless. Things do get corny once in a while, what with the need for mandatory variety meat quips, agricultural puns, and the occasional slip into man/mutton bestiality. And the ending does feel like an attempt at irony gone slightly pear-shaped. But for the most part, Black Sheep is stellar. It doesn’t redefine or deconstruct the genre so much as embrace it with an adolescent’s passionate appreciation, taking everything that made the grade-Z category into a post-modern prize. It bodes extremely well for King’s cinematic future that this first film feels so accomplished. Though it’s clearly limited in budget, it never once feels amateurish or addled. Instead, this movie reestablishes a horror fans love of all things furry, ferocious, and foul. Gut munching farm animals may seem like a stretch, but if Bert I. Gordon can make mealworms evil, why can’t a native knock on his nation. When the results are as endearing as this, there’s no reason to complain.