Review: Shepherd offers a horror film with physical scares and emotional torments

From writer/director Russell Owen (Inmate zero) come Shepherd, a surprisingly effective and harrowing horror-thriller set on a remote Scottish island where nothing seems to live but sheep, ghosts and the occasional specter of death. Tom Hughes plays Eric Black, struggling to get over the grief of the recent death of his wife, Rachel. His aging mother (Greta Scacchi) has no sympathy for him, as she always believed Rachel (Gaia Weiss) wasn’t good enough for her son. In order to cope with his grief, Tom responds to a newspaper ad seeking help for a shepherd on the aforementioned island, such a dark and isolated place you’ll probably never see in your life.

But the dilapidated cabin where he has to stay is accompanied by awful noises and a feeling of dread that makes even Tom’s dog, Baxter, afraid to climb the stairs to the bedroom. There’s also a nearby lighthouse that no longer works but periodically emits bells to ward off ships and break Tom’s peace of mind. There is not so much history to Shepherd for there is a series of incidents that effectively aggravate and overwhelm Tom and inevitably cause him to mentally crumble. The confidence with which filmmaker Owen transports us through his film is impressive. It’s elegantly done, and its handling of supernatural elements is consistently chilling, even in moments when I didn’t expect to be terrorized by a bloated, cloaked figure on the horizon. There are even a handful of moments that might leave audiences a little uneasy.

There’s something beautifully old-fashioned Shepherd, even with its small number of modern visual effects. The performances are outstanding across the board, with special kudos to the great Kate Dickie, who steers the little boat that takes Tom from the mainland to the island; unsurprisingly, she may have ulterior motives both in how she selects people to become the new shepherd and in how she essentially traps them on the island, even as they beg to be abducted . The film is both a horror story and an exercise in the emotional torment of a suffering man. Often in horror films the force of evil seeps through the cracks of people who suffer, and this is beautifully illustrated in Shepherd.

The film has a limited theatrical release starting today and will be available May 10 on VOD.

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