Some films have the sort of subject matter that just screams “cult in the making.” Sometimes, the attempt at cult status is so blatant that the sense of the film trying too hard is off-putting. On other occasions, said status is a by-product of a filmmaker simply having assured fun with torqued material. Bubba Ho-Tep is one such example. A brand new one is Black Sheep.
The tale is basically one of family tragedy. Years ago, a young boy is traumatized when his nasty older brother torments him with the corpse of his murdered pet sheep, and moments later they find out that their shepherd father has plunged to his death from a cliff. In the present day, the now sheep-phobic young man (Nathan Meister) returns to the family farm, hoping to confront and dismiss his fears. Unfortunately, his still nasty older brother’s genetic projects get out of hand and result in a horde of murderous sheep. To make matters worse, being bitten by one of these critters leads to a very hilarious form of lycanthropy.
Black Sheep hails from New Zealand, and its mix of humour and gore is heavily indebted to that country’s favorite son, Peter Jackson. Writer/director Jonathan King wrings plenty of fun of his own, though, from his concept, and how could he not with the idea of killer sheep? The brilliance of the idea is twofold. In the first place, one would be hard pressed to come up with a more ridiculous animal around which to construct a horror movie. So we have inspired stupidity. But secondly, if there is one place on Earth where the idea of murderous sheep might be scary, it’s New Zealand, where humans are massively outnumbered by the animals.
King seems to be perfectly aware of the delicious paradox he has on his hands. So he generates enormous laughs with the over-the-top gore, with sheep leaping into frame to take their prey down, and delirious sight gags such as a panicked-looking sheep behind the steering wheel of a truck as it plummets over a cliff. And that’s not even mentioning the were-sheep, which are utterly wonderful creations (courtesy of Jackson’s WETA workshop). The characterizations are a ton of fun as well, what with Meister’s terrified protagonist coming up against a threat beyond his wildest nightmares, or Danielle Mason as a howlingly earnest environmental activist named Experience.
So all right. So far so hilarious. But King also has the smarts to play the horrors straight. In such fare as Stephen Sommers’ Mummy films, one never has the sense that the characters are taking their plight seriously, so why should we? But King’s characters are genuinely terrified. Even as we laugh at their predicament, then, we also feel for them, and in between our guffaws experience some honest-to-god anxiety as the sheep close in. We actually care about who might survive. Black Sheep has the gall, then, to present its knowingly silly premise as if it were actually frightening, and lo and behold, some part of it is.
That’s why I would put this forward as a good candidate for future cult status. When a little film comes in with a completely nutty idea and handles it this well, it just gathers the love from all around.