Having been kicked in the head, twice, by both of his Raid films, I was looking forward to Gareth Evans full-length Horror film Apostle. Even more so having seen how he handled the genre in V/H/S/2 and gave the world Safe Haven, easily one of the best 20 minutes of horror put to screen. Surprisingly, Apostle turned out to be a much slower burn than I was expecting, but it proves that Evans has more to him than just hard-boiled action.
Set in 1905, the film opens with ex-missionary Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) reluctantly returning home to find that his sister Jennifer (Elen Rhys) has been kidnapped by a mysterious cult living on an island and is being held for ransom, demanding that Thomas’ father arrive and pay them. Instead, his father asks Thomas to go in his stead, using his anonymity to hide among the new arrivals, and learn as much as he can about where Jennifer is being kept.
Thomas lands on the island and is greeted by the cult’s leader Malcolm Howe (Michael Sheen), a previous convict who crash-landed on the island with two fellow prisoners, Quinn (Mark Lewis-Jones) and Frank (Paul Higgins), and discovered the key to the island’s high crop yield was with a blood sacrifice. Thus, every new resident has to keep a jar at home to fill up on a daily basis. Naturally, Thomas is disturbed but after blackmailing Frank’s son Jeremy (Bill Milner) – who is sleeping with Quinn’s daughter Ffion (Kristen Froseth) – he learns that the blood sacrifices aren’t working as well as they used to. Now the island is struggling to survive and need Jennifer’s ransom money to keep going.
I don’t want to reveal too much because there’s a definite left-turn in this flick that pushes it away from The Wicker Man style Island Cult story and into something much more tangible and disturbing. The closer Thomas gets to Malcolm, the more he finds out just how vital the blood sacrifices are and what they are being sacrificed to. It’s a strange turn to be sure, but it works to add an extra layer to the story, and take the film into an exciting new direction.
The acting was strong throughout, though part of me did wish some of the supporting cast did get sidelined, Jennifer being the worst example, but in the context of the story it made sense, but we saw little from her.
The doomed lover of Jeremy and Ffion was a nice addition. Ffion didn’t have much though she had some good scenes fighting against her father, Jeremy had a little more since he was assisting Thomas, but he’s still a little too vanilla to really stand out. And ironically enough that very purpose is what makes them both good characters for this film. This is a dark tale and this side-story of blossoming young love has no place which makes the ending to their story hurt all the more.
The three leaders of the island, Malcolm, Quinn and Frank were all good as three very different men. Much like his son, Frank was a little too vanilla, but his place as the trio’s conscience did a great job at showing how these three men had the best of intentions and just how far they’ve fallen in times of hardship. Quinn was a real surprise, at first he’s shown to be the most volatile of the three, quick-tempered and with a ferocity to match, but as the film goes on he turns out to be actually so much worse. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, but Quinn plays a much bigger part in this film than you initially think and he’s a hell of a villain.
By contrast, Malcolm starts the film as the central villain, his rule of over the island and its inhabitants born from his natural charisma and way of spinning a story. And more than once we see a very sinister side to him, but there’s something about Malcolm that when he claims to want the best for the island, you kinda believe him. It might be because he’s found a new place to call home and redeem himself for his crimes or perhaps that his daughter is one of the islanders, but Malcolm’s intentions seem to be pure even if his methods are disturbing. Sheen had this way about him where he could bring fear and sympathy out of you without changing who Malcolm was as a character.
His daughter Andrea (Lucy Boynton) shared Malcolm’s tenacity, often fighting against the established order, and not fully understanding the island’s rules. As the lone doctor on the island, her duty was to the people and part of her knew that Malcolm and the others were not in their best interest. She presented herself a good juxtaposition to Thomas, involved enough to know the inner workings of the island, but too close to her father to be able to change anything without hurting him.
Rounding out the cast was Dan Stevens who’s definitely channeling some of The Guest’s darkness about him, but with none of the charming appeal or chiseled abs. Thomas is as dark a character as this story and it’s fitting that the tow find themselves thrown together. Originally a Christian missionary, Thomas lost his faith after his congregation was massacred and himself tortured in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion. His disgust over the Island’s religion isn’t just from their blood sacrifices but in their beliefs of anything. Thomas gives the impression of a man who’s lost everything and is fighting to tell himself he doesn’t care, there’s hints to a drug use that add to his manic state, he’s often standoffish, and uncaring to the people around him, Andrea being a slight exception, but even then he’s not all that friendly. The sole counterpoint to this is Jennifer, the one point of love and affection that Thomas has left which explains why he’s pushing so hard to find her as she’s a bright spark in his dark life and worth fighting for. Stevens is able to convey that inner darkness with Thomas and still be able to pass himself as the hero, as I said he’s a dark character, but Stevens is able to make him work.
Fans of The Raid films or Safe Haven should know going in that this does not have Evans usually flair for spectacular and jaw-dropping action sequences, it’s not insane, and part of me is slightly disappointed. Given Evans pedigree, I did expect this to go absolutely bat-shit crazy by the end. Instead, I got a slow-burn horror with dashes of madness peppered throughout, not the same, but it works in its own way. For most of the first act you do get this Wicker Man feel to the whole thing, even without the blood sacrifices, the whole island has this creepy vibe to it. Everyone has fallen under its spell and ready to follow Malcolm’s every word, making you feel uneasy even if you don’t fully understand why.
Then you do find out why, and I don’t want to take away from the surprise of it, but things get WEIRD, like Pagan ritual weird. Amongst other things, the film includes pools of blood, masked torture figures, trial by fire, and a drill device that’s used in a literal bone-crunching way. And that last one isn’t even part of the madness, it’s used by humans on humans. As much as I wished the film would go all-out crazy as I was expecting, Evans instead uses the Pagan madness to exacerbate a very human evil. It’s almost scarier that the recognizably insane portions of the film don’t really factor into the story aside from being an excuse for Malcolm and Quinn to justify their actions, but there’s something really disturbing about that and Evans captures it brilliantly.
Apostle might not have been The Wicker Man 2: Hell In A Cell like I was hoping for, but that doesn’t take away from the film’s standing as one of the year’s better horror movies. It’s slow-burn approach allows it to take a kidnapping plot and turn it on it’s head without losing momentum. The acting – with special mention to Stevens and Sheen – mirrored the film’s dark-heart and Evans exchanged full-blown insanity for a creeping madness that does the job just as well.
I am giving Apostle a 4 out of 5 Hairpieces!