There is a rare moment after watching a film where you sit and stare at the credits, or even pause them rolling altogether whilst wearing a perplexed expression. Your brain frantically tries to decipher the last couple of hours you’ve spent watching a feature that carries its pros and cons, but leaves you with the hanging expression: “What the fuck?”. Gareth Evans’ Apostle hit Netflix at the start of Halloween season, and my thoughts are still stuck inside his brutal cult horror that had an avid gore fan glancing away to “take a moment”.
The premise of Apostle lies in the early twentieth century, following infiltrator Thomas (Dan Stevens) as he travels to a remote island to rescue his sister who has been taken hostage by a religious cult. Lead through blinding faith and insanity, Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen) demands her rich father to pay a ransom so his sect can continue to thrive in their segregated habitat, but Thomas soon uncovers a larger plan at work that explains the devotion of Malcolm and his followers.
Only viewing the trailer last month, I was giddy to see Apostle arrive on our favourite streaming platform so soon to let the grim rituals begin. Grim stood as a massive understatement by the end of Evans’ Welsh folktale (in stripped-back terms) that is rich in exposing the evil behind religious loyalty but perhaps suffers in its colossal leap to explain the abnormal. By the end, I was exhausted. Not surprising from the director of The Raid (Apostle being Evans’ first English language film since his first feature Footsteps) where his joint effort in direction and penning is admirable and driven with enough force to support the unforgettable scenes of the macabre.
Dan Stevens has had quite a genre shift from his recent silver screen entries (Beauty and the Beast, The Man Who Invented Christmas) making his role in Apostle surprising for the charming actor whose dabbling with horror only reached the extent of his fantastic cult superhero show Legion. Nevertheless, Stevens is first class and full of expression, whose piercing blue eyes are a character in themselves; Wide in terror on top a blood-soaked body was so visually effective and his permanent furrowed brow resembled my face as the plot thickened. Michael Sheen brought a powerful performance to witness as the proud prophet who was certainly a grounding character to hold on to as the waves of fantasy swept in to aggravate an already seasick stomach.
Undoubtedly gripped by every slow building scene in the first hour – too engrossed, in fact, to even recognise a thirst that had been developing while my jaw grazed the floor – Evans’ understanding of suspense has to be applauded. The raw brutality – that you would expect from his direction – tangled with threads of hyperbolic lore may be the gigantic leap of faith that some viewers won’t be willing to take. Personally, the added mythical element restrained a considered tale from being nothing more than a mindless gore-fest that you’d expect from Eli Roth. Instead, Apostle resembles (at points) greats like The Wicker Man that build on the terrifying feeling of isolation and play on belief and faith in various different ways pertaining to which character has the spotlight. In an abstract way of thinking, the tale’s progression could emulate bible chapters as they introduce each character and acknowledge their beliefs whether for or against the unorthodox civilisation they have ended up living in, further proving that Evans has a sound method behind the madness.
Aria Prayogi and Fajar Yuskemal’s tour de force score holds your attention in a vice even from the title screen with a resounding ambience that is deliberately too loud to ignore. A series of haunting choirs and screeching strings (reminiscent to Mother!) only drives the audience into a deeper state of discomfort that supports Evans’ crippling tension and the religious nature of the premise. As you hear every overwhelming roar of instruments, Yuskemal’s sound design never lets you miss a crunch of bone which adds credence to Evans’ skilful decision-making as a horror filmmaker.
This dark crusade will no doubt divide audiences and troublesome psyches as it’s not for the faint-hearted, but although fantasy and horror are mixed and often overpowering in the denouement, its hold over you never slackens despite its lengthy runtime of 130 min. It’s not the likeliest of films to end up on your Halloween marathon nor a film that I would revisit in the near future, but regardless of possibly being the heaviest film of the year, Apostle respectively thrives in its originality. If being squeamish is your downfall, then forcing yourself through the torture of watching an albeit, for lack of a better term, thought-provoking horror, is pointless and conclusively a feature you can afford to miss.
Directed by: Gareth Evans
Starring: Dan Stevens, Michael Sheen, Richard Elfyn, Paul Higgins, Lucy Boynton