Film Review – Shepherd
Writer/director Russell Owen’s Shepherd (2021) is a moody, atmospheric psychological horror film that has a lot of ideas on its mind. While this is a stripped-down production in terms of location and cast, there is enough style and skill to make this worth a watch. It contains a slow burn dread that builds into a nightmare, with underlying themes of loss and regret. This approach doesn’t quite payoff in the second half, when the narrative becomes reluctant to dive completely into madness. The first two acts work well in developing this world and allowing cracks to creep in. Unfortunately, it’s when the story comes to a close that things take a turn for the worse.
Eric (Tom Hughes) is overcome with grief. When we first meet him, Eric is dealing with the aftermath of his wife Rachel’s (Gaia Weiss) untimely passing. This causes conflicted emotions for Eric, given that Rachel was unfaithful. He visits his mother (Greta Scacchi) out in the Scottish country only to be met with scorn. She chastises him for abandoning their family for a wife who couldn’t keep her vows. Wrought with loneliness and depression, Eric answers a newspaper ad to work as a shepherd on a remote island. With his dog, Baxter, Eric takes a boat to the island and is left by himself. His only communication with the outside world is with the ship’s captain (Kate Dickie) who visits to drop off food and supplies.
This seems like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it? For a person going through a dark phase, being alone with his thoughts may not be the best thing for Eric. As soon as he arrives, his psyche is tested under the barren conditions. His shack is dilapidated to the point of near collapse, with holes in the walls and a staircase barely staying upright. The surrounding hills and mountains are made of jagged rocks and heavy fog – everything looks wet and miserable. Nearby stands an old lighthouse, locked and unmanned, continuously ringing to mark the time. The ringing acts as a slowly beating drum inside of Eric’s head, chipping away at his mental state like water torture.
The premise calls to mind Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse (2019). The central image (of course) is a dead giveaway, and the idea of a character slowly losing their grip with what is real translates between both. In terms of tone, Owen’s approach is more akin to a Hammer horror film. This is especially apparent during night scenes, when Eric and Baxter find themselves trapped inside the shack. The direction, production design (Chris Richmond), editing (Jim Page, Christopher Thornton), and cinematography (Richard Stoddard) capture the interiors like a classic spooky house. Shadows lurk in every corner, with only a small lamp cutting through the darkness. To accentuate the mood, Owen cuts back to the lighthouse, plastered against a black sky with thunder and light crashing behind it.
What does all this mean? Is this really happening or is it all inside of Eric’s head? Owen and his team are very good at suggesting that something ominous is descending upon this place. We get flashbacks to Eric’s time with his wife, gradually filling the gaps to let us understand his inner turmoil. As the story progresses, he becomes subject to more dreams and hallucinations. Visions of his family and his dead wife haunt him, and a growing paranoia that something has arrived on the island and is following him. He reads journals left by the shepherds that came before him, with scribbled passages about otherworldly beings. Is it a ghost? Witches? Or is the isolation taking its toll?
Things steadily get extreme, with the production not skimping on its fair share of bloodshed. This is punctuated by a shocking (albeit effective) image set outside of Eric’s shack. I will not go into detail about this – what I will say is: if you are queasy about fake (but realistic) cruelty towards animals, you may want to avert your eyes. But for all the gore and mayhem, Owen is at his best with the smaller, unsettling scenes. Sequences that look normal but are slightly off kilter is when the film is really works. Eric has an inherent fear of heights, and it takes a herculean effort to even ascend the stairs to his bedroom. The camera employs a classic dolly zoom effect made famous in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), where the camera changes position while changing zoom, making an angle look like it’s extending and contracting at the same time. As Eric looks up a stairwell, the upper floors twist and turn, amplifying his fears.
Tom Hughes does an impressive job doing what is basically a one man show. He is tasked to a do a lot of heavy lifting, often without another actor to play off. Yet he gives Eric the dramatic weight needed to carry the load. A lot of his performance is reactionary to his surroundings. One scene, in which his flock of sheep stand bizarrely still, is heightened by Hughes’ expressions. Sadly, the power of these moments are undercut by the weakness of the third act. This section – namely involving the special effects – is so poorly rendered that it pulls us out of the narrative spell. Maybe it was due to budget or schedule issues, but the sequence of events feel like they come from a complete different film.
My reservations about the ending are so strong because of how good everything was leading up to it. Owen clearly has a grasp of unnerving horror and how trauma and guilt can affect the mind. Shepherd has all the potential to take off into flights of fancy but misses by a hair. Instead pushing forward it retreats, inserting logic in place where logic doesn’t exist.