Tribeca ’07: Black Sheep (review)

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It’s an exciting time to be in the agricultural sciences, and a profitable one.

There are 40 million sheep in New Zealand, and four million people. You figure the odds. Where the Tribeca Film Festival entry Mulberry Street plays the infection noir horror subgenre as, well, dead serious, its fellow flick in the Midnight program Black Sheep, the debut film from writer-director Jonathan King, takes a ludicrous concept and plays it as totally straight-up horror, which makes it even funnier than it might have been if it were presented as a joke in the first place. What’s the big idea? Genetic engineering transforms placid woolies into maneating monsters, and oh yeah, anyone bitten mutates into a monster sheep, too. (The creature effects were handled by Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop, and they, too, tickle endlessly by going to great pains to consider what would constitute “scary” in a sheep.) Ranging over the thousands of rolling acres of a remote sheep ranch, the film takes on aspects of movies like Jurassic Park and King Kong while inevitably calling to mind classic Monty Python — remember “Harold, the intelligent sheep”? — and traditional tales of rival brothers. See, rancher/mad scientist Angus Oldfield (Peter Feeney) is determined to move his family farm into not merely the 21st century but perhaps the 24th, but little bro Henry (Nathan Meister), who’s gone city and has been away from the ranch for years, is determined to stop Angus… if only he can get over that pesky sheep phobia he developed after a particularly traumatic incident in the barn when he was a child. And yeah, the film plays that without breaking a grin, too, and ultimately becomes, as all the best sendups do, a thorough tweaking of the genre as well as an excellent example of the same. A June release in the U.S. is planned for this one, and you won’t want to miss it.

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