Russell Owen's Shepherd received its World Premiere at the BFI London Film Festival this past October. It's a spooky, ambiguous piece of supernatural horror that feels almost like a reverse-engineered A24 film. All the pieces are there, but somehow Owen's film never quite leaves the intended impression.
Eric Black (Tom Hughes) has just lost his wife in a car accident and relocates to a mysterious island to begin a job as a shepherd, but it seems that the island might have a secret of its own. The ominous ferry lady Fisher (Kate Dickie) doesn't exactly ease Eric's suspicions, but is it just Eric's own grief playing tricks on his mind?
The most obvious comparisons here are both of Robert Eggers' films, The VVitch and The Lighthouse. While Shepherd was in fact filmed at the same time as The Lighthouse, it feels so similar to the superior Eggers film that it's hard to ignore. Dickie's presence and the film's overall aesthetic are reminiscent of The VVitch and its slow-burn approach as well as themes of grief, guilt and the supernatural make Shepherd feel strangely dated.
Hughes gives a stern, internal performance as Eric, a man who is clearly on the run from his own demons. Unfortunately, both Owen's script and Hughes' performance keep everything too hidden. While it's not difficult to guess where everything is going and what secrets are being withheld, the problem is that we never like Eric, we never wish to see him uncover the island's mysteries or find closure.
Owen still packs his film full of dread and the oppressive atmosphere is almost suffocating, in the best possible way. There is a disturbingly realistic quality to the images Owen conjures up in front of our eyes. Owen clearly has the necessary skills to bring nightmares to life, but these moments are too far apart and Shepherd needed to kick into another gear to leave a lasting impression.
Ominous and disturbing, if uneven and unable to craft its own identity in a packed genre, Shepherd leaves some room for improvement but it still promises much for Owen.
Shepherd is in UK cinemas from November 26.