Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Midnight Madness
(New Zealand, 2006, 87 minutes)
Written by: Jonathan King
Directed by: Jonathan King
Cast: Matthew Chamberlain, Tammy Davis, Oliver Driver, Peter Feney, Glenis Levestam

The second horror film (at least that I'm aware of) from the "regional infestations from Down Under" sub-subgenre, "Black Sheep" is a considerable improvement over its predecessor, the notorious killer bunny oddity "Night Of The Lepus" (although the list could be extended to include everything from"Razorback" to "A Cry In The Dark"...). This agreeable horror-romp from neighbouring New Zealand made its world premiere at this year's TIFF Midnight Madness programme, and while it tries a little too hard to mimic the zaniness of Peter Jackson's "Braindead" (its obvious and acknowledged inspiration) it's a skillful debut that delivers on its concept seemingly ripped from Lloyd Kaufman's File-O-Fax. Once again, everyone: you can't deliberately create a cult film, but I'll give these first-timers a gold star for trying...

At the outset, we're told there are more sheep in New Zealand than humans--40 million, amazingly. It's a fact that terrifies Henry Oldfield (Meister), the youngest of two brothers who grew up in a farming family and as an adult still harbours his childhood fear of the wooly creatures (and making him the family black sheep). He returns to the old homestead after 15 years to sell off his property shares to older sibling Angus (Feeney), an oily capitalist whose childhood prank caused his younger brother's ovinophobia in the first place, and who just happens to be running a genetic engineering lab on the vacant ranch.

While the brothers bicker, enviro-activist "Experience" (Mason) and her clueless slacker boyfriend Grant (Driver) orchestrate a break-in to sabotage the illegal ops and accidentally unleash some sort of mutant lamb fetus into the flock. No good can come of this, of course: the nimble and foul-tempered mini-abomination bites a sheep, the sheep becomes infected, the infected sheep bites another sheep, and so on and so on (hey, it's a variant on counting them to sleep...). Soon the ravenous ovines look beyond their species to satisfy their newly acquired bloodlust...

With Grant now bitten and out of service and Angus intent on unveiling his breed of supersheep to a group of international investors at any cost, Oliver and Experience team up with the estate's unfettered Maori farmhand, Tucker (Davis), whose handiness with a gun comes in...well...handy to keep the baaadass flock from multiplying and eating the guests. And just when the creatures seem beatable, along comes a newly-spry Grant sporting fetching hooves and a wooly new coat...

As any loyal genre hound knows, this is the sort of high-concept nonsense that can go either way--wisely, King (who, like Jackson, hails from Wellington) has chosen to play the shenanigans straight, keeping the characters rooted in reality and letting the four legged critters chew the scenery, and anything else within range for that matter. There's certainly no dearth of the yech factor in "Black Sheep"s brief running time--spurting arteries, oozing blisters, bone splintering gunshots, and a pool of reeking offal (making the one in Dario Argento's "Phenomenon" look like a Sedona spa) with shaky-cam moves copped from the "Evil Dead" shot list.

The WETA Workshop artists, perhaps looking to relieve their carpal-tunnel syndrome after literal years of slinging pixels on the "Lord Of The Rings" trilogy and "King Kong", embraced the chance to engineer some old-school animatronic puppets and practical effects as a tribute to their founder's early goofball splatterfests. The sheep-beasts, while not terribly frightening, are inventive and fun in their various feral forms, with the climactic "were-sheep" a delirious vision like something out of a C.S. Lewis bender.

Sis boom bah!

Robert J. Lewis
TIFF 2006