British Gothic horror, Shepherd is as eerie and unsettling as the desolate island where the film takes place. Set on a remote island, with only the protagonist’s dog and thoughts to keep him company, Russell Owen’s horror is an unsettling, slow-burning descent into insanity that builds into a crescendo of madness through the mind of a grieving widower.
After the death of his pregnant wife, Rachel (Gaia Weiss) caused by a fatal car crash, Eric (Tom Hughes) accepts a job as a shepherd as a means of taking time to recuperate on his own. Shepherd is a profoundly unnerving and eerie portrayal of the overwhelming grief and pain that can consume a person, turning the mind into a muse for the demons within us.
Except with Shepherd, the horror is external, too. Aside from his hostile and shifty employer, Fisher, played by a brief but blood-curdling performance from Kate Dickie, Hughes carries the storyline through his psychotically charged performance that aids as a testament to the actor’s impressive talent. Extensive dialogue is absent from the script, and the film relies on the regularly recycled tropes that come with the ‘depressed man spirals into madness’ plotline. The film begins with a generous dosage of horror with constant hallucinations that blur the line between Eric’s nightmares and reality; and a plethora of red flag warnings against the island (which the protagonist expectantly ignores) is credited to the talents of the filmmaking crew who provide a reliably sinister take on the familiar subgenre of indie, isolated horror.
In the first act, Eric is accompanied by a teaser of creaking floorboard sounds and lipstick stains, just enough to trigger his fight or flight response and pique the audience’s interest. From piercing sounds of whistling wind, screeching crows and the iconic Scream like echoes of a ringing phone, Callum Donaldson’s sound design is manipulated perfectly to compliment the haunting setting.
Visually and thematically alike to Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, director of photography Richard Stoddard captures the elegantly sombre atmosphere of the island. With wide-angle shots of the imperilling vast open land and unforgiving crashing waves that barricade Eric from escaping the hellish reality, to close-up shots that translate the terror and disorient in Eric’s eyes.
Unfortunately, the subtext and themes don’t land with as much impact as Owen intended without solid writing. Owen’s focus on visual artistry, plot twists and jump scares supersede the vital connection between the character, story, and audience. Whilst Eric’s trauma and depression cause him to be a character detached from the outside world both physically and mentally, this grieving and guilt-stricken character lacks clear motivation.
Owen encapsulates the notion of ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ with a safe yet successful psychological Gothic horror that pays homage to the classics that came before it. Shepherd provides the ghostly chilling experience that you’d expect – a must-watch for fans who find comfort in the unsettling.
The Shepherd from Parkland Entertainment / Darkland Distribution is available on digital download from 21 February 2022.