With the way things have been the last couple of years, I’m sure that a lot of us would see an advertisement looking for a shepherd to take a job as the sole inhabitant of a remote island and seriously consider taking it. The idea of getting away from other people during a pandemic, and losing access to social media and all the highlights of social issues and injustices sounds pretty nice all things considered. Sadly for Eric Black (Tom Hughes) he’s trying to escape something altogether worse.
The film begins with Eric having recently buried his wife, Rachel, although not really, as there was no body in the coffin; just a collection of personal objects placed there by Eric and the other mourners. Left to try and figure out what might have happened to Rachel, we get small clues as to the tragedy Eric is living through. We also get hints that he may not just be figuratively haunted by these events when a drawer in his home opens by itself with the sound of a baby crying, and a small infant arm emerges from withing. Finding a baby scan picture inside the drawer it seems like Eric may have lost more than his wife. Deciding to get away from these ghosts he takes a remote shepherding job in the paper, leading him to a small island off the coast of Britain.
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With only his dog for company Eric finds his new home to be a brutal, yet beautiful place. An old lighthouse that no longer works dominates the beach, it’s fog bell letting off a loud ring throughout the day and night. The cottage that’s to be his home is the only other structure on the island, and standing against the elements, looking close to falling down. The rest of the island is rolling hills, foggy fields, and hundreds of sheep. It could be the ideal place to get away from all your worries; except that strange things soon start happening to Eric on the island.
Strange noises fill the house at night; someone or something begins to move around the few possessions he’s brought with him; the sheep start acting strange; and a ghostly cloaked figure appears in the dark and the fog. The events that Eric experiences feels like a haunting in the most classic sense of the word. Strange little things happen, things that could easily be explained away yet come across as frightening. A lot of the time when the more overt things happen, such as the wraith-like figure that seems to stalk Eric, they happen in his dreams, and as such the audience can be forgiven for questioning if what we’re seeing is real, or is these are perhaps the delusions of a mind broken through grief.
As the film progresses we start to learn more about Eric and his marriage to Rachel, and that there might be more to her mysterious death than we’re first led to believe. This begins to raise the question as to whether it might be her ghost that has followed him to the island, or if perhaps he’s somehow being punished for terrible things he may have done.
One of the key ways in which Shepherd tells its story is through its visuals. As Eric is often the only person on screen for the majority of the film, the environments of the movie have to do some of the work too, essentially becoming characters in their own right. Thanks to choosing to film in some remote locations across Scotland and Wales, with the Isle of Mull being one of the chief filming locations, the film takes on a wonderfully brutal beauty. The desolate landscapes are frightening and lonely places to be, yet look stunning in their presentation here. Director Russell Owen, who also wrote the film, seems to know perfectly how to take these beautiful locations and make them feel eerily sinister, and shoots some truly chilling scenes where the island itself feels like a malevolent entity.
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With other ghostly horror films seemingly unable to play things subtle for their complete run time, Shepherd definitely feels like something a little different. It feels like an older way of crafting a ghost tale, one where you’re not relying on the jumps and loud noises to frighten the audience, and you allow them to think for themselves. You should definitely check it out for this reason, and for its strong performance from lead actor Tom Hughes, and some absolutely stunning visuals.
Shepherd is out in Cinemas from 26th November 2021, and on Blu-ray and Digital Download on 21st February 2022.