Shepherd (London Film Festival 2021)

Posted: October 15, 2021 in Cinema

Writer and director: Russell Owen


If the universal experience of grieving could be translated into a cinema genre, would it be a horror story? Writer and director Russell Owen’s film explores this possibility as it follows a man traumatised by the death in a car accident of his pregnant wife, who he knows had been unfaithful to him. Feelings of loss, betrayal and guilt blend together in a toxic brew that gradually becomes increasingly horrific.

Eric Black, played with a steely glare by Tom Hughes, is the strong silent type, not given to outward displays of emotion. The word most frequently passing his lips is “Baxter”, the name of his faithful dog. After an aborted suicide attempt and rejection by his censorious, Bible-bashing mother (a fearsome Greta Scacchi), he takes a job on a remote Scottish island, seemingly uninhabited, apart from by the sheep which become his charges.

Apart from an unreliable telephone, Eric’s only contact with the outside world is Fisher, a darkly mysterious ferry woman, played by Kate Dickie as a cross between a prison warder and the Grim Reaper. Haunted by menacing visions of her, his mother and his dead wife (Gaia Weiss), he surveys the island, finding a dilapidated  cottage for shelter, a shipwreck, a disused lighthouse and an unforgiving exterior landscape which offers no prospect of redemption.

Cinematographer Richard Stoddard captures the bleak terrain to chilling effect. Roaring winds, crashing tides and atmospheric music are heard incessantly on the soundtrack, gnawing at the brain and giving no respite from the hostility all around. Creaking floorboards and things that go bang in the night are the stock in trade of horror films and the lighthouse sequence borrows heavily from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but the originality of the film’s locations tends to outweigh the most obvious clichés. 

Hughes brings out the vulnerability of Eric, a man gripped by the twin terrors of grief and isolation, and gives the film depth as it moves between psychological dram and supernatural horror. The film’s skill in walking the thin line that separates paranoia from the paranormal makes it unnerving and helps to hold the audience enthralled. A short epilogue back on the mainland feels slightly misjudged and possibly unnecessary, but it still leaves enough intriguing questions unanswered for the film to linger in our thoughts long after the closing credits have rolled.

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