Apostle movie review: Netflix’s new horror film isn’t afraid of getting kooky
Director - Gareth Evans
Cast - Dan Stevens, Michael Sheen, Lucy Boynton, Mark Lewis Jones
Rating - 3.5/5
To his credit, director Gareth Evans has made a conscious - and rather brave - choice to not repeat himself in Apostle, his first film since his breakout one-two punch, The Raid and its sequel, Berandal. Aside from a couple of muddy fisticuffs, Apostle is a great tonal, stylistic and narrative leap for the filmmaker, known for his flamboyant camerawork and fluid action.
For starters, Apostle is a dense horror-fantasy in the vein of the cult British film, The Wicker Man (not the ridiculous remake starring Nicolas Cage) and director Ben Wheatley’s Kill List - a departure from the martial arts mania of his Raid movies. It’s more sprawling in its scope - despite the claustrophobia of being set on an island - and more layered in its world-building.
This isn’t to say that Apostle is a flawless victory - far from it, in fact - but it’s a worthy (and necessary) stepping stone for a filmmaker who will only move up the ranks in the years to come.
Watch the Apostle trailer here
The year is 1905 and Dan Stevens plays former missionary Thomas Richardson, who goes on a covert mission to rescue his sister from the clutches of a mysterious cult that has confined itself to an island off the coast of England. Led by the firebrand Prophet Malcolm Howe, played by Michael Sheen, the cult prides itself on its independence from the mainland.
Howe, along with two other convicts, had washed ashore years ago, and discovered the island’s mysterious regenerative properties. Without going into too much detail about the backstory - part of the film’s fun is discovering just how kooky it’s willing to get - Howe exploited these almost magical qualities with a mixture of some old-fashioned witchcraft and his natural charisma, and established a self-sustaining community.
Sheen, an actor who has done everything from shoddy B-movie franchises to Oscar-nominated classics, plays Prophet Howe with less of a sinister edge than you’d imagine. He cranks up his natural Welsh accent - an accent Tom Hardy once said he admired for its ‘mellifluous gentleness’ - to almost comical levels. This makes his character seem more like a particularly passionate farmer than a radical leader of a cult.
Stevens, meanwhile, has that Ryan Gosling quality of being very difficult to pin down; he’s just as capable of playing psychopaths - consider The Guest a major recommendation - and Jude Law-esque heartthrobs. In Apostle, he makes what could have been a fairly run-of-the-mill character - we’ve seen several films about cult breakouts - into an altogether more mysterious, and more meaningful person. His struggles with faith are cruelly emphasised in an environment that is as harmful to him as a bar would be to an alcoholic.
Horror, more than any other genre, tends to be subjective. What scares one person might be funny to another. For horror to truly take effect, there has to be an almost mystical synthesis of several factors - the environment in which the film is being watched, the willingness of the viewer to submit, and whether or not they’re open to revealing their personal demons. Everyone has a tipping point, and Apostle breaches many thresholds, which makes it a rather foolproof experience - whether you’re paranoid about cults, or vulnerable to the sight of blood, Evans has made multiple horror films in one. He’s aided by opulent visuals, detailed production design, and a score that sounds like a thousand banshees wailing in painful unison.
He also finds time for religious critique - the cultists are essentially pagans - and for subtle feminism - the islanders worship a literal goddess, and the film’s female characters tend to be more resourceful than the bull-headed men.
We’ve been distracted by the Summer of Love, but as with last year, a fantastic selection of horror has been released on Netflix in time for Halloween. With this, Hold the Dark and the terrific series The Haunting of Hill House, we’re all set.