In writer-director Russell Owen’s hauntingly atmospheric horror, Shepherd, Eric Black (Tom Hughes) takes a job as a shepherd on an isolated, weather-beaten island after the death of his wife in a bid to escape from his grief. However, a shadowy presence appears to be stalking the widower from the mist, while his grief continues to terrorise him. Slowly, the island becomes the shepherd’s personal purgatory as he realises escape is seemingly out of reach.
Atmosphere is everything in shaping the film’s increasingly uneasy and ominously mysterious landscape. The endless mist and fog that cover the island’s hills give the location a sense of “otherness”. The rain batters impossibly loudly against the windows of the rotting cottage that Eric is forced to call home. And the clanging of the fog bell is one of the only sounds that break the island’s silence. All of this gives the setting an otherworldly presence in which the rules of reality are cast aside, and any horrors seem plausible. As our protagonist spends more time in this place, the more unpredictable and strange events become.
Hughes is magnificent in the leading role. He brings a vulnerability to his character that makes exploring Eric’s descent into madness a fascinating experience. But it’s Kate Dickie (The Witch, The Green Knight), as a foreboding character known only as Fisher, who steals the show. As insanity ensues, this character has a bigger part to play.
Given the great effort put into crafting the chilling, slow-burn atmosphere, it comes as something of a disappointment that the movie is underwhelming in terms of its scares. While Owen does steer away from conventional horror techniques, instead choosing to focus on heightening the mood of a given sequence, this approach fails to match the suspense and payoffs of other similar indie horrors. That isn’t to say the imagery used isn’t effective, but some moments, unfortunately, lack the polish to terrify as they should.
Audiences will likewise be torn regarding the story’s ambiguous and open-ended conclusion. While some will be put off by the deliberate pacing, the creepiness of the movie lies within the island’s unknowability. Multiple viewings are a necessity to grasp the hidden meaning of strange symbols and journal entries and piece together Eric’s ill-fated tale.
While coming up short on the scares, Shepherd is nevertheless an enthralling and unconventional film that’s unlike most current horror affairs.
Shepherd is released in select cinemas on 26th November 2021.
Watch the trailer for Shepherd here: