2018 | Unrated (R equivalent) | starring Dan Stevens, Michael Sheen | directed by Gareth Evans | 2hrs 10 mins |
Halloween Horrorfest #14
Pop quiz. When was the last time you saw a big name headliner celebrity killed off in a horror film with the same bloody brutality of fodder in a Dead Teenager movie? Drew Barrymore in Scream, yes, and that movie is a modern classic, but it’s rare. Let’s hold that thought.
A delightful surprise about Netflix movies is that they tend to pop up out of almost nowhere without having inundated us with trailers and Hollywood hype for months prior. Last year, Netflix got serious with the critically acclaimed Oscar bait of First They Killed My Father and Mudbound, but this year they got interesting with Hold the Dark and now Apostle, a new spin on the Wicker Man framework dropped just in time for Halloween and delivering a fun, absorbing, if uneven cocktail of religious zealotry, medieval torture and the supernatural. Even more interesting, it’s directed by Gareth Evans, who previously only specialized in Silat style Indonesian martial arts films, most notably The Raid: Redemption and it’s sequel.
Apostle is very different work for Evans, but he slips right into horror like a genre enthusiast. It’s as visually rich as his stuff usually is and best of all, Evans has constructed what feels like a working, lived-in colonial town to set the action in. I use “world building” here very literally, as he has literally built a town that sets the mood but the movie doesn’t – at all – go into the cult’s philosophies or how the economy of it’s little paradise actually functions beyond Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen)’s call for everyone to wake up equal. The prophets in charge of this place know that things are falling apart behind the scenes. They’ve kidnapped a member of a wealthy family and her brother Thomas (Dan Stevens) has been sent to the agrarian island paradise a group of Prophet Malolm’s followers have taken up residence on, infiltrating them as a believer and soon gaining Malcom’s trust before uncovering the secrets underneath.
This movie is part The Wicker Man, part Silent Hill, going down the religious cult path before ditching it entirely (these people don’t even seem like zealots and the island is ripe with secret fornication) for something far more horrifying and totally nutty than it initially appears. Following in the floodgates opened by 10 Cloverfield Lane, Apostle decides that you don’t have to chose between human and monstrous villains when you can just have both. The film is remarkably long, over 2 hours, but it’s also full, well paced for most of it’s run, incredibly entertaining. Edwards executes a few set pieces with such slow horror they are designed to burn into the memory. The first 2 acts are terrific – some of the best original stuff Netflix has put out. It’s in the third when it starts to lose its way, piling a lot on top of a lot, twists and switchbacks and cringing brutality.
The problem isn’t the turns that take the movie into it’s wackier and more bizarre territory, those involving a basket-head creature and a vampire-like figure under the floorboards (that kind of madness is right into my wheelhouse and desperately needed on Netflix), but a big shift in the villain role involving Michael Sheen’s Malcolm. It’s a disjointed twist, the film could have played out exactly the same without it, which goes back to the opening question and my theory for why this twist exists here. I could be completely wrong, but it seems like Sheen was too big a celebrity to kill off with the unflattering brutality this movie pays off in, which means handing off villain duties to a less developed character and turning them into a screaming psychopath in a very short period of time in order to set up the fierce pay off of the climactic set piece. All of this table re-arranging in the third act discombobulates the movie, sidelines Stevens for a crucial section and undermines the threat with internal political conflicts.
That loss of focus is regrettable. The messy script doesn’t set up Prophet Malcolm’s utopian world before tearing it down, nor does it give Stevens much to work with as our grunting hero who spontaneously becomes either an expert fighter or crushed by his failing faith when the story requires it. Evans is the hero here, pulling Apostle‘s various elements together into something that may not be cohesive, but is always intriguing and visually gorgeous. For it’s flaws, it’s a pronounced step in Netflix entering weird, niche movie territory – and that is certainly welcome.