18 Oct 2021
Kate Dickie, Tom Hughes, Jamie Marie Leary
Living in isolation on an island in the remotest part of Scotland, with only a herd of sheep and a dog for company? In Brexit Britain, that is what you call ‘lucky’. But even the most antisocial will be traumatised by Shepherd, a psychological horror from director Russell Owen which finds true terror in the deepest reaches of isolation.
Haunted by the death of his wife, Eric Black (Tom Hughes) comes across an unusual advert in a newspaper for the role of a shepherd to work on a remote, deserted island off the Scottish coast. As he is ferried across by a mysterious boat captain (Kate Dickie), he receives a warning about the impact of isolation on the mind. But as his tenure begins, Mr Black’s time on the island starts to descend into an inescapable nightmare – and one not just in his own head…
Shepherd is a timely, terrifying horror that hammers home the horror of isolation, our own regrets and a supernatural danger for good measure. Eric’s dark past drives his every action – and his inability to rectify his terrible mistakes is what leads him into seeking out his own secluded torture. The theme of regret threads throughout the picture, and the film clearly and consistently places Eric as someone running away from facing his actions. It’s hardly an original premise for a horror film, but it is executed well. Eric directly confronts these themes through dialogue in the film, coming across as almost genre-savvy in some scenes. Bu the strength of the writing means it is actually refreshing to see a horror be a little less opaque for once – not every meaning has to be buried under layers of subtext.
Eric’s awareness of his own growing madness is where the film’s real intrigue lies. Audiences will be wondering just how much of what they see is real, or whether everything is a manifestation. A strong plot means viewers are kept guessing, and that twists and turns arise in a natural manner – with a few missteps regarding the true story of Eric’s wife’s death. The film is also careful not to overload on shock, gore, or monstrous paranormal abominations – making it all the more shocking when those moments arise. One particular scene involving Eric’s flock is a great example of this – and is one of the most memorable scenes from any horror in recent memory, thanks to the careful way in which the film has knitted together terrifying imagery with an emotional response – and its prior abstinence from the level of gore it is capable of.
The film features some fine acting, with Tom Hughes appropriately distant as the traumatised Eric – though he never quite gets to demonstrate that special moment of release which the performance requires. Kate Dickie meanwhile is effortlessly intimidating as the boat captain – and executes a nice gender-reverse on a traditionally male role.
Special note should be made of the cinematography and setting. Shots of the Scottish coast are almost Nolan-esque, as Russell Owen presents the surrounding hills as overbearing monoliths to drive home the sense that Eric is truly trapped on the island. Eric’s exploration of a strange Lighthouse echoes… well… The Lighthouse – with some innovative shots that show the island itself seems to be excluding this unwanted intruder. Robert Eggers’ masterpiece is something of a spiritual companion for Shepherd – just replace the seagulls with sheep.
Fully utilising psychological horror in a precise and considered way, Shepherd stands out amongst its peers as a great example of how to build unbearable tension – and deliver on it. It manages to innovate on a classic premise and stand out on its own merits.
Shepherd will had its World Premiere at London Film Festival on 14th October and is in UK Cinemas from 12th November