Shepherd finds the right disguise for its familiar horror-movie checklist
The new Scottish horror-drama Shepherd suffers from a classic case of Dead Wife Syndrome, a storytelling ailment where a protagonist’s longing for/guilt over their deceased spouse dictates the plot in a reductive, predictable way. The primary symptom of this common disease is a flashback where the dead wife looks over her shoulder at the camera as sunlight frames her hair, which is tousled in an unselfconsciously sexy way. In Shepherd, that standard-issue flashback comes when the wife is walking on a chilly Scottish beach in a tartan skirt and leather jacket, blissfully unaware of the frigid death that awaits her in the sea beyond.
That isn’t the only box on the DWS checklist that Shepherd ticks, either. It also features a conspicuously placed ultrasound photo indicating she was pregnant when she died. And a protagonist experiencing frequent jump-scare nightmares about her funeral. And unspoken secrets about the circumstances of her death. All the symptoms are present: Shepherd’s diagnosis is indisputable.
It’s possible for a film to overcome Dead Wife Syndrome — take The Changeling, the 1980 haunted-house classic that begins with George C. Scott retreating to a secluded mansion to mourn his wife and daughter. But Shepherd isn’t unique enough to beat the condition. A Discovery of Witches’ Tom Hughes stars as Eric Black, the grieving husband, who takes a job as a solitary caretaker for a flock of sheep on a remote island off Scotland’s western coast. When the movie begins, Eric’s wife and unborn child are already dead, so he can’t be driven to murder them. Beyond that, parallels to Stephen King’s The Shining begin right away with the introduction of a milky-eyed sea captain played by Kate Dickie, the British character actor who starred in The Witch and was recently spotted in The Green Knight and The Northman.
It’s never entirely clear whether Dickie’s character is a real, flesh-and-blood person, or the cruel manifestation of Eric’s suffering conscience. Either way, after serving as the Charon on Eric’s personal boat to Hades, she tortures him with taunting phone calls that speed up his Shining-style rapid descent into isolated madness. (The entire film, from Eric’s arrival on the island to the story’s resolution, unfolds over the course of about a week.) Aside from Dickie’s threatening voice, Eric’s only companion for the majority of the film is his dog Baxter, whose arc earns this film a trigger warning for the kind of animal-lovers who haunt DoesTheDogDie.com. And then there’s the lighthouse, which clanks like a junk-store robot and comes stuffed with ominous taxidermy.
There’s a fair amount of upsetting imagery in Shepherd, not all of it involving animals. Eric also engages in some self-harm, and a gaunt, wind-blown specter of death literally follows him around throughout the film. The actual events of Shepherd are mostly phantasmagorical in nature: Once he arrives on the island, Eric explores his rugged surroundings, has nightmares about his late spouse Rachel (Gaia Weiss), and keeps himself awake at night jumping at shadows. That’s about it, except for the scene where he finds a dusty journal and opens to a page reading, “She’s a witch! She’s here!” (That thread gets lost almost immediately, but it does set an eerie tone.)
The idea of a nautical haunted-house movie is appealing, and writer-director Russell Owen does have a knack for creating eerie atmosphere. This pairs nicely with cinematographer Richard Stoddard’s appreciation for the film’s desolate, windswept locations, which he captures in a more dynamic range of colors than one might expect from heavy clouds, wet rocks, and dry grass. There’s some eye-catching color work going on in this film in general, combined with settings that look lived-in enough that it’s hard to tell whether they were pre-existing locations or sets created for the film. They’re striking either way.
These elements make up for some of the movie’s low-budget limitations, like a crude rear-projection shot and off-the-rack makeup effects. But for Shepherd to truly transcend its rickety bits and its story clichés, it would need to come up with more resonant and creative images than Owen is able to produce here. Flayed sheep, blue-skinned dead people, the Grim Reaper: the symbolism in this film comes from a dark, despairing place, but also a familiar, much-expected one. Combined with the influences bobbing right on the surface of the script — The Lighthouse is another big one — Shepherd is more of a bandwagon-jumping exercise in arthouse horror films about grief than a truly bone-chilling example of one.
Shepherd premieres in theaters on May 6 and will be available for digital rental or purchase on May 10.