If you like films like Germany’s Hagasuzza – that is, earthy folk horror films with the slow pace and crushing atmosphere of a doom metal album – then you might be the target audience of Shepherd. Oozing with febrile tension, this Scotland-set slow burner from writer and director Russell Owen boasts staggering visuals and a dizzying score. However, its hackneyed plot elements might cause some viewers to stray from the flock.
Reeling from the loss of his wife, grief-stricken Eric Black (Tom Hughes) returns to his elderly mother in a remote stretch of rural Britain. Upon arrival, he finds nothing but rejection and resentment there, his mother having not forgiven him for turning his back on his faith in order to pursue “that whore”. Seeking solitude, Black takes a job tending to sheep on a windswept Scottish island. His employer, the one-eyed and delightfully sinister Fisher (Kate Dickie) seems to know a great deal more about the island than she lets on. She refuses to cross a threshold in the earth that seems to act as a supernatural boundary, and warns him of the mental strain that can come with this kind of self-imposed isolation. She’s not wrong!
Dialogue is sparse, which is appropriate for a film that focuses on isolation as a key theme. Eric’s only real companions are his trusty sheepdog and his herd of sheep – although these come to be more ominous presences as the film progresses. Instead of dialogue, Shepherd builds its tension through tight cinematography and excellent sound design.
Cinematographer Richard Stoddard has a keen eye for breathtaking and melancholy landscapes. He captures the craggy island scenery in wide shots that are both desolate and eerie, but also carry with them the potential of surveillance and danger. As a result, we wonder throughout whether Eric is truly alone in this place, long before a mysterious figure clothed in black rags enters the story.
Callum Donaldson provides musical accompaniment with a score that evokes biting cold, the creak of ancient timbers and the howling wind that beseiges Eric’s meagre cottage. Production designer Chris Richmond has done a good job of making the cottage itself as inhospitable and decrepit as possible, complete with peeling paint, moth-eaten stuffed animals and groaning woodwork. Working in tandem, these touches create a rich atmosphere of gothic menace.
As the story unfolds, it begins to coagulate around a few portentous symbols. These include an abandoned lighthouse whose fog bell clanks at opportune moments, the mysterious black-robed figure, and the rotary phone that should be Eric’s only lifeline to the world outside. Particularly impressive is the way that mundane objects begin to take on unsettling meanings as we view them through the lens of Eric’s increasingly unstable grasp on reality. As we enter the third act, we begin to journey into the realm of the properly hallucinatory, and we are left to decipher what is real and what is just a product of Eric’s tortured psyche. Jump-scares are employed, but for the most part they are well handled and feel “earned” by the plot, rather than simply used as a tool to inject tension when things start to flag.
That said, there are aspects of the plot that feel clichéd. Eric’s status as guilt-ridden widower being the crux of the story would be an example. His journey into the heart of darkness is clearly meant to be analogous with unresolved feelings about the death of his wife. However, this emotional core of the story feels way too familiar. Although Tom Hughes gives a very strong performance – all the more impressive for being mainly made up of silent close-ups of his face – we can’t help feeling that we’ve met this character many times before. The final set of Twilight Zone-esque twists are severely undercut by the familiarity of this tried and true formula.
All in all, students of folk horror should be sure not to miss Shepherd. It is a fine example of the kind of brooding, landscape-driven chiller that fans of the genre will love. If you are unperturbed by slow pacing and enjoy an enigmatic and visually lush film with a mystery at its heart, then Shepherd is sure to be right up your alley.