Review: Shepherd Offers a Horror Film with Physical Scares and Emotional Torment

From writer/director Russell Owen (Inmate Zero) comes Shepherd, a surprisingly effective and angsty 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, having an impossible time getting through the grief of the recent death of his wife, Rachel. His aging mother (Greta Scacchi) has no sympathy for him, since she always believed Rachel (Gaia Weiss) wasn’t good enough for her son. In order to cope with his mourning, Tom answers a help-wanted ad in the paper for a shepherd on the aforementioned island, as bleak and isolated a place as you’ll likely ever see in your life.

But the dilapidated shack where he must stay comes complete with awful noises and a sense of dread that make even Tom’s dog Baxter afraid to ascend the staircase up to the bedroom. There’s also a lighthouse nearby that doesn’t work any longer but does emit bell tolls periodically to ward away ships and fracture Tom’s peace of mind. There’s not so much a story to Shepherd as there is a series of incidents to compound and effectively overwhelm Tom and cause him to inevitably mentally collapse. The confidence with which filmmaker Owen moves us through his film is impressive. It’s stylishly realized, and his handling of the supernatural elements is consistently scary throughout, even in moments I wasn’t expecting to be terrorized by a billowy, cloaked figure on the horizon. There are even a handful of moments that might leave audiences a bit queasy.

There's something beautifully old fashioned about Shepherd, even with its small number of modern visual effects. The performances are stellar across the board, with particular kudos going to the great Kate Dickie, who captains the small boat that takes Tom from the mainland to the island; not surprisingly, she may have ulterior motives in both the way she selects people to become the new shepherd and how she basically traps them on the island, even as they beg to be taken off. The movie delivers as both a horror story and an exercise in the emotional torment of a man in pain. Often in scary movies, the evil force works itself into the cracks of people in pain, and this is beautifully illustrated in Shepherd.

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

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.