If there were a recognized sub-subgenre of folk-horror films about people going into exile to seek settlement, redemption, or any other kind of answer to the questions that life – or death – has thrown at them, only to subsequently get beset by all manner of horrors, it would be a genre that’s quality-wise quite well populated. Sator and A Dark Song come to mind, and movies such as The Dark And The Wicked, The Lighthouse (2019), Caveat, Cold Skin, and even The Witch – all very fine movies (even though The Witch didn’t do so much for me personally; I can nonetheless see its qualities) characterized by deliberate pacing, great acting and dripping with eerie atmosphere.
Shepherd is one such movie to be categorized in the subgenre that I just made up. Directed and written by Welsh filmmaker Russell Owen (Inmate Zero, Welcome to the Majority) and mostly shot on location on the Isle of Mull in Scotland, it follows the ordeals of Eric Black (Tom Hughes, Realive, Infinite), a lone acrophobic who’s plagued by recurring nightmares of his apparently now-deceased, then-pregnant wife Rachel (Gaia Weiss, Meander, The Bunker Game).
Looking for peace of mind, he finds a job opening in the newspaper for the titular duties, and off he goes with his dog Baxter as his sole companion. En route, he visits his deeply religious and reproachful mother (Greta Scacchi, Presumed Innocent, Country Life), who strongly opposed his marriage to Rachel and holds him culpable for whatever went wrong in his life.
Eric is ferried to his destination, a remote island, by a woman named Fisher (Kate Dickie, Undergods, The Green Knight) who shows him around and hands him a diary to record his thoughts in. The island is barren, with a dilapidated cabin and a defunct lighthouse as the only premises on it. Once settled in, he finds diaries like the one he’s given, filled with frantic and ominous writings about witches and mystical omens. Moreover, his nightmares develop into horrific visions and hallucinations, and strange occurrences with mysterious visitors are challenging what mental sanity he still has left. Will Eric come to terms with his own past and find the redemption he seeks before he loses his mind completely?
Tom Hughes carries most of the movie in a solo performance, as Eric goes about his business and undergoes the horrors that his situation throws at him. Hughes is a fine actor, but his character Eric is a bit problematic as he is portrayed as a tormented but introverted person who’s difficult to approach, let alone to relate to, by the few supporting characters in the movie and, by extension, also by the viewer.
As a result, I was watching someone who’s obviously traumatized and guilt-ridden but who I couldn’t really get myself emotionally invested in. Shepherd also keeps whatever caused Eric’s guilt and trauma under wraps until the final act, and while that was a deliberate artistic choice by Owen, I’m not sure if it helped promote my engagement with the movie and ended up working how it was intended.
Owen’s approach also has some strong benefits though, which may even almost outweigh its downsides, by keeping dialogue down to a minimum and the narrative exposition almost exclusively visual. Hughes lets just enough emotion come through, without going overboard, to keep me at least interested in what happens to Eric. This brings me to Shepherd’s biggest trump card: it’s a visual feast.
Shepherd is deliberately paced and lensed, the location is stunning, the sets are detailed and special effects, while not plentiful, are convincing. It all looks breathtakingly beautiful, supported by an ominous and befittingly minimalistic score, howling winds, thundering seas, and creaking wood. Owen’s budget was obviously limited, so he kept his cast to a minimum, chose his location well, and put his resources wisely where it mattered most to him.
Shepherd’s underlying theme, while already told many times before and being straightforward enough by itself – about someone seeking solitude to get redemption and reconciliation, is embedded in a visually told story that’s not easily accessible and this may not be to everyone’s liking. It’s deliberately paced with many slow, almost static, silent establishing shots populated by a single character who only has occasional brief verbal exchanges with his dog, in an occasional phone call, or with an occasional visitor that may or may not be imagined.
As Eric slides deeper into the madness around and inside him, the distinction between his reality and his hallucinations starts to blur, and with its ambiguous finale, the movie even keeps the possibility open that the entire movie may have been a depiction of Eric’s own imagination. It may take some effort, and even a rewatch, to piece the narrative together, and even then not everything gets fully explained. I was okay with the way Shepherd handled its proceedings, but some may find it overly convoluted and unsatisfying.
The movie, while eerie and atmospheric, is light on real scares, and gorehounds will also surely be left wanting. It has a few moments of horror but Shepherd is not bloody, or jumpscare material. It’s a singular descent into the guilt-driven madness of one man in solitude, and mostly relies on atmosphere and desolation. Ultimately, it’s more akin to psychological horror movies in the vein of The Lighthouse – sans the dialogue – than it is to the supernatural folk-horror tales of movies like Sator.
Had Owen poured a bit more horror into Shepherd’s proceedings, and made Eric a bit more relatable, it would have made it a great movie. As it is, it’s still interesting enough to warrant spending 105 minutes of viewing time if you know what kind of movie you’re going into. Shepherd gets many things right and looks fantastic, but it also left me feeling like it was kind of a missed or at least not fully utilized opportunity.
Shepherd has already been released in several countries. In the US Saban will release it to theatres on March 6th, it comes to Digital and VOD platforms on March 22nd. You can keep an eye on the film’s Facebook page for more details, and FilmTagger for something similar to hold you over until then.