Dir. Russell Owen
by Ria Woodburn
After sixteen years in the making from concept until today, Shepherd (UK, Russell Owen, 2021) finally premiered last October at the BFI Film Festival, followed by a general UK cinema release at the end of November.
Written and directed by Russell Owen, and shot on the Scottish Isle of Mull, his film debut follows a grief-stricken husband after he takes a job on a remote island. With its only other inhabitants being a flock of sheep, a decrepit home and an imposing lighthouse, it isn’t long before the haunting memories he had hoped to leave behind also take up residency.
Quickly establishing its genre and backstory, Shepherd hurls you into a host of stylishly eerie scenes: a raucous seacoast, a funeral burial and a wailing female apparition, all shot against the craggy mountainous shoreline. With the introduction of the film’s tone, we also get a snapshot of the lead character’s current mental health. Still suffering after the death of his wife, Eric Black, played by the brooding Tom Hughes, is deep in emotional turmoil, which has spilled out into all areas of his life and stopped it in its tracks. After a fraught goodbye with his mother, he decides to escape life even further and whisks himself and his dog away to the island. Flung into the role of shepherd and general caretaker, with no electricity, and only sporadic outside contact from the local ferry operator, Fisher (Kate Dickie), his mind declines further. Memories of his wife Rachel (Gaia Weiss) stalk his nightmares, while a menacing banshee-like entity haunts his daydreams.
Throughout the film, Eric displays a whole host of trauma symptoms, and the island, rather than being a place for him to recuperate, exacerbates them. Manifesting as his nemesis, the landscape is a character all on its own. As it teams up with his paranormal visions, it hints that there is a mystery to be solved. Peppered with red herrings, the mystery is difficult to ascertain, skillfully making you question at times if there even is one. Eric’s new abode doesn’t give him a break either, being the home of most of the supernatural terror. However, although it runs into classic haunted house territory, it cunningly doesn’t have its own singular identity. Instead, the house becomes an extension of the island, a temporary tenant that only lets through the door what the landscape wants it to let in.
The appearance of Kate Dickie as Fisher signals that all will not be well. Dickie with her striking presence is expertly cast in this role and sets out to do what she does best. As Eric’s only means of contact on the island – mostly through a retro yellow corded telephone – her conversations are part prophecy and part lecture. She has no intention of dampening the despair but gently inflames it, compounding the paranoia. Like the island, she is intent on releasing Eric’s secrets and he seems powerless to stop their intrusion. For a film that would have only been one man and his dog, these interactions give his character room to reflect, while adding some much-needed insight into his previous life outside of the island.
Ticking all the boxes of an Ann Radcliffe gothic horror, Shepherd follows the rules to create a modern adaptation in both its subject matter and placement. The story is handcrafted into the atmospheric Isle of Mull, giving a masterclass in how to utilise the landscape to build a terror-inducing stage. When writing the script, director Russell Owen drew on his experience of male friends who had lost their lives to depression. Observing the topic of mental health through a fictional narrative has created an experience that isn’t lost in the supernatural elements of the film.
Despite the fast-paced culmination towards the end, the overall timeline is slow, simulating the gradual untangling of Eric’s detachment from reality, and the hidden secrets of the story waiting to be found. With a few jumps here and there, Shepherd won’t keep you up at night, but I guarantee you won’t look at an open kitchen drawer in quite the same way again.