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If there’s one genre that’s suffered criticism over the past couple of decades – and rightly so – it’s horror. So many movies have failed to be… well, scary, but here’s one that shows us (and hopefully a few filmmakers) how it’s done. Shepherd is crooked for all the right reasons.
It’s a major feather in the cap for writer-director Russell Owen, and this was borne out by the movie making an Official Selection at last year’s BFI London Film Festival.
The spectacular Scottish Highlands form the backdrop for the first part of this creepy tale, which incidentally was the setting for another modern British success story, 2002s Dog Soldiers. Here we find Eric Black (Tom Hughes), who’s recently been widowed by the mysterious death of his wife Rachel (Gaia Weiss) and has more than a few demons to contend with. After seeing a job vacancy in the local paper for a shepherd, he travels to a remote island to take up the post with his faithful border collie, Baxter, by his side. The mysterious Fisher (Kate Dickie) is the skipper for their journey.
So why does this particular horror flick succeed when so many others have failed? Traditionally, a scary movie is at its best when it’s minimalistic. Think of the classic Hammer horrors of the 1960s: a small cast, plenty of gaps in the dialogue, not to mention that sometimes you can hear a pin drop. All of this creates a tense, chilling atmosphere, putting the frighteners on the audience to the max. It’s fine to go overboard if you’re using groundbreaking special effects, but otherwise less is definitely more – exactly the reason The Blair Witch Project was so effective. Shepherd also leaves you on the edge of your seat again and again.
In being more old-fashioned in its formula, it’s perhaps inevitable that influences from classics such as Psycho, The Wicker Man and, most telling of all, The Shining are clear to see up there on screen. One subsequent criticism that could be levelled at Shepherd is that it’s overly-derivative, but this would be doing it a disservice as it’s more of a doffing of its hat to the greats. It certainly has a lot to thank them for. The Isle of Mull, where the bulk of the filming took place, becomes a macabre personification of the story; almost a cast member in itself.
Speaking of which, the evergreen Greta Scaachi delivers her usual high standard as Eric’s disturbed mother. And while the special effects manage to chill the audience, they’re used sparingly so as to keep the tension mounting subtly. It’s also worth mentioning that in Baxter, we probably see the best-trained canine since Lassie. Seriously, all his movements are on point, adding to the eerie atmosphere.
All in all we have a film that manages to be highly innovative on a low budget – almost certainly the biggest triumph of substance over style you’re likely to see this year. If you’ve lost faith in horror movies, prepare to have it restored. Shepherd is now on digital release.
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