Apostle (2018) is a new horror flick written and directed by Gareth Evans, known for The Raid series and V/H/S/2.
Apostle’s protagonist is gruff ex-missionary Thomas (Dan Stevens), who sets out to save his kidnapped sister Jen (Elen Rhys) from an isolated island run by a cult. The cult requires frequent blood sacrifices from each member of the village, a sacrifice Thomas is repeatedly warned not to make. Island leaders Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen) and his right hand men discover that a traitor is amongst them, and havoc ensues.
The stunning camera work alone, by Raid 2 alum Matt Flannery, makes this movie is a must-watch for anyone interested in film. Flannery's cinematography steals the show with opening shots skimming across a body of water and aligning perfectly alongside a moving train. A see-it-to-believe-it 270 degree barrel roll shot of a mass cross burning lets the audience know that they are not in control, the movie is. And their location scouts/producers need a raise—almost every setting in the movie is an absolute joy to look at.
Grassy outdoor backdrops aside, the movies’ indoor sets falls victim to the washed-out bleached look that so many period pieces have chosen to embody, as if drabness is the only way to establish a time period. (It’s to be expected from its streaming service Netflix, which has a fondness for bleary tan and gray color palettes.) However, with purposeful lighting providing some necessary balance, the backgrounds look textured and rich.
The acting in Apostle is fine, if occasionally ham-fisted. Stevens, a competent actor, growls every line and peers through his eyebrows, giving him the appearance of a brooding teenager. Bill Milner and Kristine Froseth shine in their pared-down performances as young lovers Jeremy and Ffion, bringing some much-needed lightness to the film. Lucy Boynton plays Andrea, daughter of the Prophet. Andrea is supposed to be “knowledgable” about sex, and flirts openly with Thomas when she first meets him. Thomas rejects her advances, but not before their forced flirting results in one of the worst lines of dialogue I’ve ever heard. Andrea coos to Thomas, “Your eyes…they’ve seen things.” (It made me laugh so hard that I had to pause the movie both times I watched it.)
The exceptional score is of a type that has become popular lately (check out scores from The Ritual or The Witch for comparison.) The folksy music varies greatly throughout, with elements ranging from tinny drums to nails on a chalkboard screeching to powerful thrumming depending on the intensity the scene demands. Music is imperative to building tension, and it succeeds partly in Apostle because it is often mixed seamlessly into the diegesis. The use of clanging instruments contrasted with silence make for a hell of an audio experience.
The gore in the movie is top-notch. No expense is spared for the plethora of throat-slicing, hand-slitting, brutal fighting, and all around bloodiness. To my utter joy, I didn’t notice any blood/gore continuity errors—not an easy feat in a movie as sanguinary as Apostle. Old-fashioned torture devices are utilized in some excellently choreographed scenes to draw flailing, dramatic performances from the actors.
The members of the island are pious in a way that seems appropriate for the time period, and don’t seem devoutly religious in the way that cult members are often portrayed. Their costumes and hairstyles reflect their salt-of-the-earth lifestyles. Strangely, Stevens, Rhys, and a few other characters wear a strange makeup choice that unintentionally makes them look like they have pinkeye.
And speaking of members of the island, we are told the island grows crops even though the soil is not rich enough to be fruitful—all it requires are frequent pint-sized blood sacrifices from each villager. We never quite get to see the lushness that the island purportedly delivers, and the cult leaders spend most of their time openly killing or torturing people, leaving it unclear why anyone would actually want to live on the island. “You will want for nothing,” a leader tells Elaine (Catrin Aaron), a former vagrant. That is the best explanation offered.
Apostle succeeds at creating empathetic storylines around taboo topics. Apostle wants to talk about abortion, motherhood, and patriarchies vs. matriarchies. It wants to talk about the meaning of hero worship, the results of power unchecked, and the messiness of ruling through a leaders’ perceived proximity to holiness. Apostle touches on these subjects, never delivering a fully rounded message but leaving the viewer with a lot to think about. The religious aspects and symbolism are intricately woven and make this movie worth a repeat watch. Come for the flickers of goosebump-inducing horror, stay for the grisly torture contraptions and the breathtaking camera work.