Written by: Matt Patti | May 5th, 2022
Shepherd (Russell Owen, 2021) 2 out of 4 stars.
Director Russell Owen’s horror film Shepherd can be classified in many ways. It can be said that it’s an atmospheric horror based on its principal location and slow build-up of escalating tension. It can also be said that it’s a psychological horror film, with the filmmakers attempting to capture their central character’s spiral into madness. Mystery is another label that can be applied, as there is an unknown element of one character that is not revealed until the film’s conclusion. However, Shepherd really only succeeds on the atmospheric front, lacking in substance in regard to the other two classifications, though they are somewhat present. Furthermore, Shepherd fails on what is most important in any horror film, or film in general: character quality and development. A technical achievement shot on a breathtaking island, Shepherd’s script can’t quite match up to its impressive scenery.
In the film, Eric Black (Tom Hughes, Masterpiece’s Victoria series) is haunted by the recent death of his wife. Lost and seeking solitude, he signs up for a job as a shepherd on a remote island. He and his dog Baxter live there alone as Eric tends to the sheep. What at first seems like the perfect escape from Eric’s past soon turns into something sinister, as Eric battles with horrifying visions and strange occurrences. Alone and on his own, can he escape the desolate island before he spirals into complete madness?
Before diving into what didn’t quite work for me, I want to shed some light on the magnificent technical elements on display. The choice of location is perfect and lends well to the atmospheric horror elements of this film. The cinematography is also stunning, and the set design is very impressive and detailed. The sound design, though, is the true standout here. The authentic sounds of the island mixed with a foreboding tune create a sense of uneasiness that perfectly fits the surrounding. The imagery presented on screen in some of the shots is very creative and disturbing, some of which may be ingrained into my head for much longer than I’d like, which is a compliment to a horror film.
Unfortunately, the technical mastery of the film is bogged down by its overly simplistic plot and uncompelling main character. Eric might get the sympathy of many based on the events leading up to the film, but for me he is completely bland and not captivating at all. He shows little signs of grief—and I know everyone grieves in their own way—but Eric actually exudes almost nothing at all. Even when insane happenings pile up, he seems very unaffected and very far from “madness.” When a viewer is to be stuck in one place with a single person alone for the majority of a film, it is imperative that they be an intriguing, layered character who can carry a film on their shoulders. Unfortunately, Eric is not that person. Hughes as Eric is fine, and when Eric needs to convey emotion Hughes is able to provide a decent performance, but, sadly, the script does not give Eric much to do.
Another major issue I have with this film is its overreliance on nightmares and visions. These are staples in the horror genre and even the greatest of horror films contain these. I understand that. Shepherd takes this to the extreme, though, as almost the entirety of the film’s horror elements before Act III are hallucinations or dreams. These simply do not have nearly the same effect as legitimate occurrences and are easy ways to dissipate the conflict and reset the character to his naïve self with little consequences.
While the first two acts of the film are very underwhelming, there is enjoyment to be had in the third, when the story shifts gears and very unsettling, creepy events take place. Sadly, the viewer is largely disinterested by this point, and it’s difficult for a film to pull a viewer back in when their investment has already been lost. It’s as if the filmmakers saved all their best tricks for last, but I think these would have been much better sprinkled throughout the rest of the film rather than all confined to the last 30 minutes, as it does feel a bit overcrowded. There is a reveal near the end that is quite predictable but does add some more layers to Eric, which is necessary. Overall, though, Eric’s weak character, the lack of development, and the overused horror clichés drown out the superb technical feats. Even with its freaky third act and somewhat satisfying conclusion, Shepherd fails to fully herd, and hold, the viewer’s interest.