Americans find it easy to laugh at cows, maybe because eating steaks and hamburgers provides part of our national identity. It doesn't hurt that the deadpan expressions of big-eyed, cud-chewing bovines makes them such ideal clowns for the incongruous comedy of "The Far Side" comic strip and Chick-fil-A's "Eat More Chikin" ad campaign.
But will American audiences find rams and ewes equally as comical in New Zealand's dark comedy Black Sheep? Writer/director Jonathan King's horror parody seems aimed at sheep-farming clichés that New Zealanders may appreciate more fully than other agricultural nations. King amusingly infuses common, dull-looking sheep with an air of menace; is their stillness a sign of docility, or of coiled threat? Black Sheep presents some great sight gags of sinister flocks stampeding down hills, or a lone sheep facing down potential victims in a hallway. The cannibalistic rams and ewes take literally the old biblical adage that "All flesh is grass."
After a prologue that reveals the roots of a childhood trauma, Black Sheep sets up the tensions between wealthy farmer Angus (Peter Feeney), who dabbles in genetic engineering to build a better sheep, and his younger brother Henry, who struggles with a paralyzing phobia of the beasts. When environmental activists release a failed experiment, mutations begin spreading across the acres, with bitten sheep turning into savage man-eaters, and infected humans transforming into woolly monsters.
Weta Workshop, creators of The Lord of the Rings' special effects for director Peter Jackson, cleverly uses make-up and puppetry for the sheepish creatures. King seems to be trying even more to emulate Jackson's 1992 zombie comedy Dead Alive, which used a dysfunctional mother-son dynamic to set up wildly inventive, laughably gory slapstick. King substitutes sibling rivalry and killer sheep, but doesn't really appreciate the fine distinction between a hilariously sick sight gag and a juvenile gross-out. Simply having sheep maul humans in graphic detail isn't necessarily funny, apart from the gallows comedy of having a victim, say, throw his own leg at an assailant.
The comely hippie activist named "Experience" (Danielle Mason) provides some funny lines about feng shui at murder sites, but the film's second half relies on weak shtick about bestiality and haggis (though not at the same time). It's a shame there's no market for 30- to 40-minute short films, because Black Sheep would be twice as good at half the length. The film's status as a cult horror flick seems assured, right alongside the giant rabbits of Night of the Lepus and the killer amphibians of Frogs.
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