Netflix seems to have a thing lately for sending alienated men off to remote locations to confront demons both literal and metaphorical. Just the other week we saw Jeffrey Wright packed off to the remote wilds of Alaska in Jeremy Saulnier’s haunting Hold the Dark. Now it’s Dan Stevens’ turn as he infiltrates a cloistered religious community in order to rescue his estranged sister in Gareth Evans’ Apostle.
Taking strong cues from Robin Hardy’s 1973 folk horror classic The Wicker Man, Apostle sets its action on a remote Welsh island in the year 1905. Led by charismatic preacher Malcolm Howe (Michael Sheen effectively subbing in for Christopher Lee), who lives on the isle with his daughter Andrea (Lucy Boynton), the inhabitants worship a mysterious goddess, and though that worship manifests as a kind of weird evangelical Christian gestalt cult, it’s not a million miles away from The Wicker Man’s pagan tomfoolery. They also face a similar problem as the people of The Wicker Man’s Summerisle: failing crops. And while blood sacrifice is part of the cult’s doctrine, Howe and his second in command Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones) have hit upon a more prosaic solution: kidnaping and ransom.
The object of the exercise is Jennifer (Elen Rhys), and so onto this scene comes her brother Thomas (Dan Stevens), a former missionary turned apostate after experiencing atrocities and torture during China’s Boxer Rebellion (and really, top marks for the historical color). Pretending to be a fresh convert, he makes his way to the island with a boatload of true believers and …
… well, the movie proceeds from there. There is an awful amount of blood; that is, in fact, one of the key points that differentiates Apostle from The Wicker Man (sorry to keep banging on about it, but the picture itself deliberately invites comparison). While Hardy’s film is completely bloodless (and yet still absolutely terrifying), Evans has plated up a rarer meal — ‘rare’ as in ‘bloody as hell.’ That’s perhaps fitting, after all, this is the guy who gave us The Raid (2011) and its sequel, and though he’s worked in horror before — a segment in the anthology film V/H/S/2 (2013) — he made his bones in high impact visceral action, a fact clearly evident here.
And though sometimes Apostle drifts too far into the action idiom (a late stage brawl between two characters would fit seamlessly into your more rawboned variety of actioner), for the most part the violence is apt both narratively and thematically, with Evans grimly highlighting religion’s roots in blood and sacrifice and pain — and not just the bizarre religion of the islanders. The blood of the lamb, the blood of the covenant, the blood of mortification, vilification, deification — Apostle is steeped in claret of all kinds.
Which makes for a rather dour affair, to be honest. Apostle is never less than arresting, thanks to its central mystery, its enveloping sense of place and lustrous cinematography (thank Matt Flannery for that) and some gruff, committed performances (it is a shame Dan Stevens came along after we stopped anointing people as movie stars, isn’t it?), but it’s a tough slog, and while spiritual torment is the order of the day, Evans doesn’t skimp on the physical, with torture, dismemberment, execution, and mutilation all featuring on the menu. While never getting close to some of the more extreme physical horror flicks out there (and here we must say hello, The French), it’s still not one for the squeamish.
So, I had a blast. For all the splatter and visceral matter, there’s something quite classical about Apostle. It feels like its adapted from some half-forgotten gems read in one of Stephen Jones’ countless horror anthologies: erudite, pitiless, imaginative, poetic, and pure in its intent. A future classic? Maybe not, but a solid and admirable genre exercise nonetheless.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson