Director: Russell Owen
Screenplay: Russell Owen
Starring: Kate Dickie, Tom Hughes, Jamie Marie Leary
Review: David Stephens
Folk horror seems to be undergoing a huge resurgence recently. Even ignoring heavy hitters like Midsommar and Hereditary, there are very recent critical successes such as Gaia, In the Earth, and Lamb. Not to mention the hugely enjoyable documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched. Allowing that the definition of folk horror has always been a bit wobbly and subjective, here's another notable release in the same vein. "Shepherd" has had plenty of critical plaudits and opened at last year's London Film Festival before a limited theatrical release. Directed and written by Welsh filmmaker Russell Owen, it stars Tom Hughes (A Discovery of Witches), Kate Dickie (The Witch), and Greta Scacchi (The Terror). Now on VOD and Blu-Ray in the UK, we take a look at this atmospheric chiller about the worst job offer you could imagine.
Eric Black (Hughes) is in an emotionally dark place. Having just lost his wife and unborn baby to tragedy, he's stumbling through each day and contemplating suicide. After a troubled reunion with his estranged religious mother (Gladys, played by Scacchi), Eric needs to get away from everyone. Accompanied only by his dog Baxter, a border collie who appears to be the living incarnation of "Courage the Cowardly Dog", he takes a job working as a shepherd on a remote and deserted island. Ferried there by "Fisher" (a creepy and nautical Dickie in fine form), he takes up residence in a crappy cottage with no running water or means of contact. As Eric starts his chores, feeding the flock of sheep, mending walls and suchlike, he is drawn to a nearby lighthouse that constantly tolls a bell. He begins to suspect that the island is hiding some kind of nasty secret…
…. And you get the idea with that. The nice thing about Shepherd is that, whilst elements of it aren't wholly original, and parts of the plot contain several well-worn genre tropes, it's all pulled together pretty darned well. It is a slow-burner, and at one hour 43 minutes, it could do with a little tightening. The opening also points to an experience that isn't going to be a laff-a-minute. A canto from "Dante's Inferno", followed by moans of pain, slowed heartbeats, a submerged body, and a burial. Fun times! Joking aside, this is a neat and chilly offering that has so much atmosphere you'll be wafting the fog out of the windows and wondering why the heating seems to be on the blink.
First off, let's just reiterate again that this is not a hi-octane experience. Much of the spooky and tense moments come from slow pans to unopened doors, figures in the mist, creaking wood, and tolling bells. In some ways, it feels like one of those BBC Ghost Story for Christmas productions, except this has a somewhat bigger budget and a way larger set. There is little dialogue for much of the running time except when Hughes talks to himself or his traumatised mutt. Having said that, Hughes does carry the film very well indeed as most of the scary aspects are tied into his nervous reactions and his ongoing torment. Dickie is not onscreen that much, but her sinister fisherwoman ("S'umtin's haunting you, Mr Black. I can see it.”) is an absolute joy to behold and listen to. She casts her presence over much of the film even when she's not around. Scacchi is also fine as the bitter matriarch and provides one of the few overt jump-scares in the proceedings.
Much effective use is made of the fantastic scenery, with the Isle of Mull providing an incredible setting for a spooky tale. This allows for some great expansive imagery and effects, such as Hughes being dwarfed by huge fog banks, encountering a shipwreck, and just wandering across vast marshland and fields. Some sequences also deliver some nightmarish moments that are hard to shrug off. Check out the baby hand clutching at the air from the inside of a kitchen drawer. *Brrr*. What is also effective is the understated mythology present here. There are references to "wreckers", witches, and other little details that aren't fully detailed but resonate with the narrative. Why can't a character cross a boundary marked by seaweed? What do the button-eyed birds represent? What do the runic symbols mean? The tone falls somewhere between the novels of M.R. James and Ramsey Campbell.
Although the ending never reaches the levels of WTF? that a film like Kill List does, some may be a little underwhelmed by the denouement. Although certain elements are made clear(ish), the levels of exposition and pay-off aren't definitive by any means. However, there are a couple of nasty little extra twists of the narrative-knife, and it feels mostly satisfying and true to the story's tone. At the end of the day, though, Shepherd is more about the atmos than the details, and it delivers that in spades. If you're looking for a scary story on a deserted island that drips dread rather than blood, this is a good choice for viewing on a cold night by a warm fire … and who doesn't enjoy that from time to time?