Between Bull (Paul Andrew Williams), Cow (Andrea Arnold) and Lamb (Valdimar Jóhannsson), you can hardly move for livestock at the London Film Festival. It is handy then that Shepherd also arrives at the event, a new British horror film about a widower (Tom Hughes) who answers a mysterious ad in the paper: “Wanted, shepherd.” Moving with his dog to a remote island populated by sheep and ghosts, Eric soon finds himself stranded in something resembling clinically depressed Wallace & Gromit.
Russell Owen’s movie is hugely indebted to Robert Eggers, director of The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019), in terms of both its content (livestock, lighthouse, Kate Dickie) and style. As with The Lighthouse, there is a heavy dose of Edgar Allen Poe in the story of a man driven mad by guilt on a ravaged island, his mind unspooling like reams of wool. Dread is shorn into every godforsaken frame, nothingness stretching to the very ends of the earth.
The loud and incessant sound design aids Eric’s oppression, devoured by the howling winds, lapping waves and creaking floors of the cabin where the shepherd is condemned. A lighthouse chimes throughout with the chilling inevitability of a death knell, ringing through the fog to warn lost souls to recalibrate their existential sat nav. And then there are Eric’s nightmares, which make his waking life on a desolate rock seem relaxing by comparison.
When Owen employs CGI it is understood as another manifestation of Eric’s guilty conscience rather than some supernatural force, keeping us locked inside the head of a man who thinks his dog has made him a cup of tea. Mannered chapter headings add to the tale’s mythic quality, its slow-burning horror punctuated by strange jolts and shocking images, including a particularly effective early scare involving a desk drawer.
In other words, Shepherd is extremely atmospheric, even if the less dreamy stretches drag under the weight of its self-consciousness. As impressive as it is for a film about a man haunted by echoing “baa”s to raise hairs rather than giggles, the genre’s current obsession with farmyard animals is wearing, and an ironic subject for indie flicks to flock towards.
That said, this is an undeniably creepy addition to what might be called the deathstock subgenre, undermined by its glaring references to such recent cinematic gems, too fresh in the memory to make the movie appear to be doing anything new. As for deathstock, let us hope that Shepherd rounds up this trend instead of merely feeding it, lest we find ourselves overrun by films called Goat Story and The Bleating.
Shepherd has just premiered at the BFI London Film Festival.