Monday, October 29, 2007

Black Sheep

There’s something deeply unsettling about farm animals. We know rightly, clutching the fires of rationality, that huge swarms of these creatures must exist, how else do we find our carnivorous hunger satisfied at the merest request? Yet locked in our urban prison houses, we find the imagination lacking in forming a picture of the flocks and herds supposedly grazing out there. Add to that mental block the insidious characteristics attributed the farmer and his ‘simpler’ way of life, plus the grinding flesh pulp grotesques underscoring the scene, and it’s no mystery why metropolitan condescension might give way to bowel-shuddering terror at the thought of time spent in the company of living slabs of farm animal.

Cinema, never one to shirk the opportunity to revel in nostalgia for a lost past (agrarian or otherwise), has seen occasion to parade such creatures on-screen before now. While the nauseating family dreck of Babe is best forgotten, the same surely cannot be said of Pink Flamingos’ infamous chicken cameo!

Let them come and be counted in the rectangular spotlight of film, help us dear instrument of modernity to dispel from the mind fear of what lies beyond our myopic gaze.

But perhaps truth and reality and projectiles of fact are not priorities, at least where Black Sheep is concerned. I might hope so: the idea that a deranged woollen gargoyle will turn up in my room, bloodthirst on its tongue, doesn’t ease my sleeping troubles.

What relation does Black Sheep create between the humble pastoral mammal and its cruel dominator? Could it be an inverted victim/victimiser relation perchance?

Why, turns out the horror genre does it again, flipping in a dance of poetic justice the dichotomies taken for granted – meat for the man? master/dinner? “Get to fuck,” cries those with vocational qualifications in latex and the crimson fluids. And let’s rejoice, for it leads to wonderful articles of entertainment, a motion movie like the aforementioned, to name one.

Erasing from history that Chris Farley number from a few years back, Black Sheep even dares to leave David Spade on the shelf marked That guy who’s not James Spader. Born in New Zealand and content to let the film title gesture a pithy synopsis, the film has mutant sheep go on the rampage after being contaminated by a toxic goo. The outbreak of rabid mutton occurs while our hero, Henry, is rupturing a fifteen-year countryside abstinence by visiting the farm on which he grew up. Not only is the timing of the dementia epidemic unfortunate, but Henry is also afflicted with a phobia of sheep. Yes, even Lamb Chop gets his heart accelerating.

As the horde move to install a dictatorship of the sheep, converting whatever humankind they come across to their cause (by way of a swift bite to the jugular and a subsequent transformation of the bitten into towering Sheep People), young Henry and his newly acquired eco-warrior girlfriend must mount the resistance necessary to overcome the threat. Cue running, guns, splatter and wisecracks.

Wisecracks? Indeed, would you not say that such a narrative deserves the comedic touch? Naturally Black Sheep sees fit to enwrap itself in the fabric of comedy horror, the sort that enjoyed life in abundance during the 80s but that’s sadly diminished in the intervening years. The film shares with its Antipodean kin – a wealthy canon comprising such numbers as the Aussie Body Melt or the youthful outings of Peter Jackson – a love of black comedy mixed with self-deprecation and hyperbole. The irreverence of the Evil Dead series, the rubber violence of Troma, the Dr Moreau tapestry of Freaked – all are evoked by the absurdist logic of Black Sheep. It’s all pulled off with a keen cinematic expertise: the director clearly knows when to pull back and allow a Birds-esque menace to build. The action sequences are tackled with great success and the visual palette is most fetching.

For the non-Kiwi, the national specificity in which many of the gags are cloaked may prove daunting. However, the jokes are still effective and affecting, the air of blackened comic genius remains after any local subtext is stripped away. And with a cast featuring charming players such as a Kiwi Naomi Watts, what’s not to love? Certainly the special effects courtesy of WETA yearn for affection, as does the thought newly inserted in spectatorial heads of spin-offs concerning Sheep-Human hybrids attempting to become integrated into society, Meet the Applegates-style, maybe getting jobs as insurance salespeople. The possibilities are endless. Hell, they could even get roles as extras in a sequel to Dog Soldiers.

Finally we can converse with our brothers and sisters in New Zealand without having to mention that guy who made those films with the orcs and elves and assorted small people. All thanks to Black Sheep.


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