A period set horror thriller that sees a brother sent to a remote island to retrieve his sister from the clutches of a religious cult instantly brings folk horror films of the ‘60s and ‘70s to mind. Films like The Wicker Man or even The Witchfinder General. While it takes its time to unveil the mysteries within the isle of Erisden, Apostle sets itself apart from any folk horror we knew before thanks to a visceral, no holds barred third act that will leave you on edge.
That’s because this was written and directed by Gareth Evans, the mind behind the tightly choreographed and vicious martial arts films The Raid and The Raid 2. Though those hoping for a repeat of those nonstop actioners should drop those expectations at the door. In Apostle, he introduces us to antihero Thomas Richardson (The Guest‘s Dan Stevens), a man sent to Erisden on behalf of his father when a cult has kidnapped her for ransom. It’s clear from the outset that Thomas is battling his own inner demons and has no love lost for his near catatonic father. He’s grizzled, filthy, and drug addicted. But his deep love for his sister has never wavered, and thus begins his dangerous journey.
Once there, he finds a welcoming but strict religious group led by self-appointed prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen). Malcolm is charismatic but stern, and flanked by menacing enforcers. As with all cults, there’s a lot of secrets bubbling beneath the surface of this seemingly idyllic community. Aside from trying to discover the whereabouts of Thomas’ sister while always on the precipice of being discovered, the biggest mystery is that of “She,” the goddess of which this cult worships.
Evans is no stranger to tension building, and that’s taken to a new level here. The looming threat of discovery, and Thomas’ tenuous allies who also face threat of discovery, lends a heightened suspense into the slow ascension to one gonzo final act. It helps that there are moments throughout that bring the realization that there’s a lot more truth to this cult’s religion than typically found in this subgenre. This isn’t just a thriller, but full-blown horror.
The cast is tremendous. Stevens once again makes for a compelling lead; broken and vulnerable, yet standoffish and cunning in doing what he needs to accomplish his mission. Compared to The Guest, there’s far less action in Apostle, but what there is Stevens handles with ease and believability. Sheen plays his charismatic cult leader from a place of desperation without the typical scene chewing, grounding his character in realism. His right-hand man, Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones), introduces one of cinema’s most ruthless villains to come along in a long time.
Between the constant tension, uncomfortable moments of brutality (animal lovers beware), and increasing awareness of the otherworldly horrors behind the cult, none of it serves as adequate preparation for the insanity Evans unleashes upon his audience in the final act. It’s a visceral, exhilarating onslaught of brutality. Evans isn’t just content to get you up close and personal with the pain and suffering he’s inflicting upon his characters, he wants you to know what it’s like to be them in their final breaths. Innovative camera work, angles, and directing puts the viewer in place of one character meeting their most excruciating demise at the film’s turning point, signaling an end to any pauses to catch your breath. From there it’s an unrelenting thrill ride full of blood, gore, guts, and death.
It’s a bit of a shame that this is dropping straight to Netflix in a few weeks as this is a cinematic experience worth seeing on the big screen. Evans departs from his usual action fare to weave a gripping story centered around unique Pagan-like mythology steeped in blood and sacrifice. It’s folk horror, but with a new level of brutality and viscera unlike most of its ilk. A slow burn mystery that crescendos into madness, Apostle made me a firm believer.