Back in the Seventies, there was a spate of “nature strikes back” films. Titles such as Grizzly (Jaws with Paws), Ticks, Alligator, Octopus, Crocodile, Piranha, Spiders, Barracuda, Anaconda, Slugs, Mosquito, Day of the Animals, Food of the Gods, etc. The best of them was represented by Jaws and Australia’s Long Weekend, the worst by films like Night of the Lepus and Frogs. Lepus was notable for its terrible special FX and malevolent bunnies, for men with big sideburns and Steve Austin-style leisure suits, for Oscar nominees (Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh), and for DeForrest Kelly (Bones on Star Trek). Frogs…well, how to describe frogs? Ray Milland is the patriarch of an Old Southern Family. He hates all crawling things, so naturally he lives in a swamp, where crawling things abound. He and his family spend all their time poisoning the swamp, thus causing NATURE TO REBEL. The titular Frogs never actually kill anyone, though it is suggested by filmic juxtaposition that they are somehow orchestrating human hits through their froggy Mento-rays, as the various family members are snakebit, tarantula-cocooned, munched by big turtles, drained by leeches, and poisoned by some apparently genius monitor lizards. Until the last scene, when they hop joyfully on a corpse, the frogs work behind the scenes like Tong ganglords.
Even when viewed as camp, Frogs flunks…unless you’re in the mood for lots of stock footage of reptiles and insects. Of course this is supposed to be one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films, so maybe I’m missing something…but then try and name a piece of trash that isn’t one of QT’s favorite films.
Anyway, now we seem to be in the early stages of another spate of such films, the bastard children, perhaps, of An Inconvenient Truth, the two most recent of which are the Irish rural thriller, Isolation, and New Zealand’s gory romp, Black Sheep, films that reference the potentials for terror implicit to Earth’s most horrifying creatures: cows and sheep.
Isolation plays it straight and immerses us straightaway in farm living, opening with a scene in which a young vet, Orla (Essie Davis), plunges her arm into a cow’s privates, attempting to assist a difficult birth—something tears the vet’s hand from within the womb, and the calf, itself inexplicably preggers, is ultimately delivered by means of a hand winch. Dan (John Lynch), who owns the farm, is desperate to hang onto his family property and has allowed fertility experiments to be conducted by your basic evil biotech company. Onto this stage (90-95% of the movie is shot in the barn) come an evil biotech scientist and a young couple on the run. Director Billy O’Brian knows how to sustain tension and evoke atmosphere--he nails the desolate, slurry-of-mud-and-shit ambiance of a remote farm--but it soon becomes clear that he’s wasting his considerable cinematic skill on yet another Alien rip-off. After a stylish first half, the film descends into formulaic grue-and-gore. Horrorheads will appreciate O’Brian’s efforts to tweak the formula, but others will not hesitate to yawn and switch off the DVD. If you choose the latter path, you’ll miss Jim Ford’s “I’m Going to Make Her Love Me (‘Til the Cows Come Home), which plays over the closing credit. Should the movie bore you and yet you desire to see it through to the bloody end, let me recommend the Isolation drinking game:
“Get ready for the Violence of the Lambs!” So trumpets the tagline of Jonathan King’s demented splatter comedy, Black Sheep, whose plot can be briefly summed up as: genetic engineering experiments on a out-of-the-way New Zealand farm result in a new breed of man-eating ovine, and also in vampire sheep (a totally unexplained turn of events) whose bite morphs people into monstrosities half-sheep and half-man. Make sense? Nah. Except for the overall lack of seriousness, it sounds a lot like Isolation, but that’s where all resemblance ends.
Angus Oldfield (played by Peter Feeney--think Bruce Cambell with an accent) plans to revolutionize the livestock industry with his New Age ewe-age. His brother Henry (Nathan Meister), a dyed-in-the-wool sheep-a-phobe, fails to thwart Angus's plans to debut the new breed before visiting investors from Europe and Japan. As was the case in 28 Days Later, it’s animal rights activists in the person of Grant (Oliver Driver), an idiot with a top-knot, and Experience (Danielle Mason), a hippie vegan, who loose the madness upon the world. Grant liberates a fetal sheep from Angus’ farm, but his "Meat Is Murder" bumper sticker doesn't prevent the fetus from chewing off his ear, leaving Experience to make her way across miles of farmland inhabited by things that go Ba-aa in the night.
“Have you been eating meat, Grant?” Experience asks her boy-toy, who has been transformed into a tangle of bloodthirsty were-wool. “Was it even organic?”
While Isolation has a don’t-fuck-with-Mother-Nature message buried in its viscera, Black Sheep doesn’t even have a snappy slogan. It cops its vibe from fellow Kiwi Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, a festival of sight gags all based on spewing and spattering (in fact, Jackson’s WETA Workshop handles these and the impressive sheep-creature effects). The chief source of humor is the contrast between the dumb stares of the sheep and their murderous M.O.—you’re always going to get a laugh when you cut away from someone’s guts strung along a fence to a blank ovine face attached to a poofy body. To his credit, King wrings every last ounce of humor from his unnatural spawn killers, whomping against steering wheels and trees, detonating their super methane farts with a lighter, and going so far as to parody the scene in Hitchcock’s The Birds when Rod Taylor goes for a cautious stroll among thousands of ominously silent birds. After a while this foolishness becomes a little tedious, but hey, it’s better than Eli Roth’s smarmy take on horror any day.