Welsh director Gareth Evans is best known to cult movie fans as the man behind the 2011 Indonesian action movie The Raid: Redemption and its 2014 sequel The Raid 2. These thrilling, violent, and incredibly-choreographed martial arts epics made much of what passes for Hollywood action seem anaemic in comparison and marked Evans out as one of modern cinema's most exciting new talents. Evan's latest movie is Apostle, a Netflix Original which sees him move from martial arts madness into dark horror territory.
While this might seem like a left-turn for Evans, anyone who saw Safe Haven, his co-directed entry into the 2013 anthology film V/H/S 2 will know that he has serious horror chops too. Apostle is set in 1905, and stars Legion's Dan Stevens as Thomas Richardson, a man with a mysterious past who is dispatched by his wealthy family to the fictional island of Erisden, several miles off the British coast. His sister Jennifer has been seemingly kidnapped by a religious cult who have set up home on the island and is being held there for ransom. Richardson enters the community undercover, and attempts to discover what has happened to Jennifer.
Apostle is very much a movie of two halves. The first plays out more like a spooky mystery than a straight horror movie, as Richardson becomes part of this deeply religious society. The movie takes its time in introducing the main characters--there's Malcolm (Michael Sheen), the wild-eyed leader of the cult, his daughter Andrea (Lucy Boynton), Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones, Malcolm's thuggish right-hand man, and a pair of young lovers, whose secret affair will ultimately have terrible consequences for the whole community. For the most part, we see events unfold through Richardson's eyes as he starts to plan his sister's rescue.
But while the the true horror of Apostle doesn't unfold for some time, Evans makes it clear early on that something is very wrong on Erisden. Why must the new arrivals all leave a jar of their own blood outside their doors at night? Who is that long-haired figure we glimpse wandering around the village? And who exactly is this unnamed “god” that the cult members are worshipping? Evans, who also wrote the script, keeps on cranking the tension, as Richardson realises that Malcolm knows there is an intruder on the island and that time is running out.
The movies also deals with questions of faith and divinity, as Richardson's own troubled history is revealed, and the actions of this outsider community begin to mirror traumatic events in his own past. Evans is careful to give the key characters well developed back-stories and manages to raise our sympathies for characters initially perceived as "villains." The acting is strong, in particular Stevens and Sheen, both of whom deliver powerful, charismatic performances. The acting style is deliberately theatrical rather than the more naturalistic approach usually expected from contemporary stories, which suits the movie's setting and period dialogue perfectly.
Richardson's attempts to free Jennifer kickstart the frankly insane second half. If the main influence of the first half is creepy British folk-horror films like The Wicker Man, then the rest simply tosses everything else into the mix. The movie leaves the realm of the “real” and embraces the supernatural, throwing in some horrific torture, surreal, nightmarish imagery, and even a couple of bone-crunching fights along the way. The movie's willingness to embrace an increasingly crazy storyline might not be for everyone; while the movie certainly doesn't turn into a comedy, it does becomes exaggerated and seriously over-the-top with the gore.
Nevertheless, Evans deserves credit for not playing it safe and refusing to take his movie in a more formulaic direction. It's a great looking film too, with Matt Flannery's cinematography bringing out the stark beauty of the island landscapes, and the droning, unsettling music helping create a sense of other-wordly terror. It's inevitable that this throw-it-at-wall approach will create elements that don't always work; the climactic scenes feel a little rushed and choppily edited, and even at 130 minutes, there are plot points that seem a little under-explained. But in an era of generic, formulaic horror, you'll won't see another movie quite like Apostle this Halloween. A cult movie in every sense of the word.
|The good||The bad|
|Extremely tense||Sudden shifts in tone|
|Impressive performance||Some plot points under-developed|
|Intelligent, ambitious script||Climax a bit messy|
|Lots of gore|