Being honest with yourself is one of the hardest things to do. Shepherd, writer/director Russell Owen’s latest film, explores guilt, grief, and self-deception through an atmospheric supernatural horror story. Though the narrative sometimes fails to coalesce, particularly regarding its psychological elements, it’s an effectively chilling tale that excels at establishing an eerie, mysterious mood.
Eric Black (Tom Hughes) is grieving the loss of his wife (Gaia Weiss) and searching for an escape from his life. He finds it in the want ads, where he sees a job posting for a shepherd on a remote Scottish island. He and his dog journey to the island, where they meet Fisher (Kate Dickie), who runs the boat to and from the mainland and offers Eric cryptic advice about his duties on the island. Once Fisher leaves, Eric starts to experience disturbing phenomena, including nightmares about his mother (Greta Scacchi) and visions of an ominous Watcher. Fisher starts calling him with eerie messages, as Eric learns that the island is not what he thought it was and that it might not be so easy to leave.
Where Shepherd truly shines is in its atmosphere. Richard Stoddard’s cinematography is moody and foreboding, with beautifully menacing shots of fog rolling in impossibly fast or lamplight in an abandoned cabin. Callum Donaldson’s buzzy, nerve-shredding score carries a lot of the load: Hughes is a little too stoic and guarded throughout the film for Eric’s psychological torment to resonate fully with the audience, but the music — along with Dickie’s chilling voice performance — does much of the story’s heavy lifting. Though there are some terrific shocks in the film, what sticks with the viewer the most are Fisher’s phone calls to Eric. Her grim, measured voice drops sinister hints like heavy stones falling into a lake: they fill the viewer with so much dread, and the ripples last longer than seems possible.
Shepherd is a desolate and ominous story about facing the sins of your past lest they take over your future. Though it keeps the audience at a bit too much of a distance, the film effectively builds a frightening chill that clings to the viewer’s bones. Donaldson’s score, Stoddard’s cinematography, and Dickie’s performance in particular make this a film worth seeking out. Owen crafts an intriguing central mystery — who or what is the Watcher, and what does it want Eric to confess? — suggesting to viewers that our own personal hells are, in Fisher’s words, “nothing that can’t be remedied with a little honesty.”