Black Sheep (UK - BD)
Chris Gould checks out this low-budget horror offering from Kiwi Jonathan King
After a fifteen year absence, Henry Oldfield returns to the farm where he was raised in order to sell his share to his bullying older brother, Angus. Henry originally departed the farm after the death of his father and a particularly traumatising experience involving sheep, which left him with an extreme case of ovinaphobia. What Henry doesn't know is that in his absence Angus has been conducting genetic experiments in an attempt to create the ‘perfect’ breed of sheep—the Oldfield.
Things take a turn for the worse when a couple of well-meaning environmentalist hippies break into the laboratory and steal one of the failed experiments, which subsequently escapes and transforms all of the sheep on the farm into zombies! It’s up to Henry, Maori farmhand Tucker and female environmentalist Experience to save the day—if they can survive long enough!
At some point in my childhood I happened across a late-night showing of an ultra-gory, darkly comic zombie movie. At the time I had no idea what it was, but I taped that sucker and it quickly became the ‘most borrowed’ VHS in my collection. I'd never heard of Peter Jackson, but I sure liked Braindead. Now you might wonder what all of this has to do with Black Sheep? Well, given that this is another low-budget Kiwi film with a zombie theme and over-the-top gore effects, the comparison is almost inevitable.
At first glance it would seem that the filmmakers have been heavily influenced by the style and tone of Jackson's earlier works, but there are references to numerous other genre pictures ( An American Werewolf in London immediately springs to mind). There are also a few humorous references to Kiwis shagging sheep, plus a great sight gag with a bottle of mint sauce, but unfortunately genuine laugh out loud moments are few and far between. This is the biggest problem with Black Sheep—it's just not as funny as it should be.
It's not a terrible film though. Granted the acting is a little hammy, but it works will with the tongue in cheek nature of the movie. The prosthetic and visual effects work by WETA Workshop is actually very impressive, lending a credibility that belies the films low-budget origins (even if it's obvious that the monsters are just men in sheep costumes), and there's a fair amount of gore on display. If only there had been a few more belly laughs squeezed out of the material it could have been something special, but as it is the film is a bit of a one-note joke that never really rises above the average.
Presented at its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and encoded in 1080p/AVC, Black Sheep looks pretty good for a low-budget flick. The cinematography does a great job of showcasing the lush green hills of the New Zealand countryside, although the colour palette is slightly muted overall. I think I spotted a few edge halos during the brief runtime, and I definitely saw a few film artefacts during the darker scenes, but on the whole this is a pretty good effort. I was particularly impressed with the black levels, which are extremely deep and solid with decent shadow detail.
I did experience one strange reoccurring artefact that I couldn't explain. Every now and then the picture would stutter momentarily, as if skipping a frame, before continuing on as normal. This happened throughout the entire runtime, but I remain undecided as to whether the fault lies with the disc, my player or my TV. I fully accept that it could be a hardware issue, but I haven't experienced this kind of glitch with any other title so I thought it was worth mentioning.
Black Sheep is the first title I've owned that doesn't feature at least one of the high-definition audio formats. There's no PCM, no TrueHD, not even the oft-used DTS-HD Master Audio. No, we have to make do with a plain old Dolby Digital 5.1 track, with a bitrate of 640Kbps. Don't get me wrong, the track is perfectly functional, but it's unlikely to give your system much of a workout.
It's mostly a frontal affair, with perfectly serviceable levels and reasonable, if not earth-shattering bass. However, the track is at its best when the rears spring to life, be that for the sound of a plane flying overhead, some creepy atmospheric noises in an underground cave system, or the bleating of thousands of sheep as they lay siege to a house (there's even a Wilhelm scream thrown in for good measure). Perhaps the most impressive element of the soundtrack is the music, which sounds like it comes from a much more expensive film. For some reason I couldn't help being reminded of The Frighteners score, in tone if not in style.
First up is a commentary track by Director Jonathan King (no, not that Jonathan King) and Nathan Meister. They go into plenty of detail and point out some interesting facts along the way, and I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of the dreaded 'dead air'. My favourite tracks are those that strike a decent balance between the technical and the anecdotal, and this is one such track.
Next we have a thirty-one minute featurette entitled ‘The Making of Black Sheep’, which is actually a pretty decent effort compared to most of the fluffy PR rubbish you generally find on discs. Many of the cast and crew are interviewed, as are members of the WETA Workshop team that created the special effects for the movie. It explains the reasons behind the choice to go for practical effects, rather than digital ones, and features plenty of on-set footage. Those of you familiar with the Lord of the Rings DVDs will undoubtedly recognise Richard Taylor of WETA. Unfortunately, as talented as the man is, I find his voice something akin to nails down a blackboard, so I was a little put off.
Five deleted scenes (with optional commentary) come next, but to be honest they're very short and there's not a lot that would have added much to the completed film. Most memorable are a slightly different opening scene that would have introduced two characters at an earlier stage, and a very brief alternate ending.
A short (two and a half minute) blooper reel follows, but to be honest the actors seemed to find it all a lot funnier than I did. We wrap things up with the theatrical trailer, which shows many of the funnier moments and could well be the preferred way to watch the film. All extras are presented in standard definition.
This review marked my second viewing of Black Sheep and it only served to confirm my suspicions—it's just not funny enough. The marketing for the film made a big deal of comparing it to films like Shaun of the Dead, but by my reckoning that turned out to be a bit of an own goal. If you're going to base your campaign around comparisons with one of the best horror/comedies ever, you'd better be damn sure that your film lives up to the hype. While not without its charms, Black Sheep just isn't a patch on the aforementioned Pegg/Wright movie, or even Jackson's earlier outings like Braindead.
Icon's Blu-ray release is also a bit of a mixed affair. Audio-visual elements are solid but not exceptional, with the lack of a high-definition audio track being particularly lamentable. Extras are fun but not entirely fulfilling, and I would have liked a slightly more in-depth making of featurette. As things stand it's only the making of and commentary that really hold any interest. Still, if you're a fan the disc is definitely worthy of your attention, but others might like to try before they buy.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 31st March 2008
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby Digial 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo English
Subtitles: English HoH
Extras: Feature Commentary, Making of Documentary, Deleted Scenes, Blooper Reel
Easter Egg: No
Director: Jonathan King
Cast: Nathan Meister, Danielle Mason, Peter Feeney, Tammy Davis, Oliver Driver
Genre: Comedy and Horror
Length: 83 minutes
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