Netflix is developing – count ’em! – hundreds of original films right now, and as more and more of them pour onto the streaming service, it’s hard to grumble when there are new movies to discover every week. Trouble is, when spare time is limited and you have to be selective, there’s a growing need to be aware of which new releases are worth your screen time. Apostle, from The Raid maestro Gareth Evans, is. But it’s an oddity. It’s definitely a timely folk horror flick after the modest successes of other genre entries like The Witch and The Hallow, but it’s also much more hit-and-miss, and suffers from a fair amount of pacing issues. That said, there’s a lot to enjoy when it hits its stride.
In Apostle, Thomas Richardson is a broken man. He’s seen ‘things’. Things that change a person, and that stain their worldview forever.
Unfortunately for Thomas – here played by the lovable Dan Stevens (The Guest, Legion) – he doesn’t have time to process those ‘things’ he’s seen and been through, as his wealthy father has received a very upsetting ransom note. It seems that Thomas’ beloved sister has been kidnapped, and because their patriarch is too ill to make the journey to rescue her, Thomas is the one who’s going to have to get the job done. There’s one slight problem with this scenario – Thomas would probably struggle to do a weekly Tesco big shop without collapsing, let alone carefully ingratiate himself with a bunch of backwoods religious nuts.
Ah yes, see, Thomas’ sister hasn’t been kidnapped by just anybody; she’s been dragged out to an island in the middle of nowhere, and one that is home to an extremely dodgy religious cult, overseen by Welsh Pastor Malcolm (the always-incredible Michael Sheen).
So far, so kinda-Wicker Man, but to compare this 1905-set outing to that 70s horror masterpiece is perhaps quite unfair, for the most part. This is, after all, a Gareth Evans film, so any notion that we’re on a slow burn slide to Shocksville is out the window – Apostle hits the ground running and delivers the kind of ultraviolent, gore-soaked visuals you’d expect from a director who appears to thoroughly enjoy making his audiences reflexively wince, and you’ll likely do a lot of that here.
Adding to the film’s unique vision, Stevens’ performance as Thomas lands somewhere between his Terminator-like Guest psycho and his wildly unwell role in Noah Hawley’s X-Men series, Legion. This isn’t the quiet, contemplative English gent sauntering through the open grey-capped landscape that you’d expect to be at the centre of your standard folk horror tale – jittery, unbalanced and unkempt, he’s still more than a match for desperate kidnapper, Pastor Malcolm. Sheen might well initially snatch the energy away by chomping down on each word of the script like a delicious, shiny apple, but the story seems absolutely hellbent on pulling the rug out from under our expectations. It’s in this determination to shake up the genre that Apostle’s greatest successes are achieved, and its failures sadly flourish.
Evans manages to skilfully nail a few of the more classic horror tropes throughout the first half of the film. There’s some sudden and shocking animal violence, some creepy incidents unfolding that Thomas is able to witness, and some he can’t – weird stuff lurking around behind him in the frame as he pokes about, you know the drill – and lingering shots of the ominous gazes that the more burly townsfolk are dishing out in spades.
But in swinging and shaking the camera to add some of his signature visceral touches, while simultaneously creating beautifully-constructed scenes that play out in a more traditional and languid fashion, the director has mashed up a weird-ass combination of styles that occasionally don’t work together. It’s sort of like eating a jam and Marmite sandwich at times. Those things might taste good separately, but maybe they weren’t meant to be lovers.
As the gore ramps up, a few too many characters in the mix also let the wind out of the film’s sails and slow it down a little, and it’s fairly easy to imagine a shorter cut of Apostle clipping along at a much more agreeable pace. If you line this up for an evening’s entertainment hoping for a whole bunch of gasp-inducing standout moments, you’ll absolutely get them, but the flow of the story does make it a bit of a frustrating watch overall. Often just as events seem to be kicking off in earnest, we find ourselves back in another part of the town’s ongoing drama, and the urge to stay with Thomas and bear witness to more of the remote island’s supernatural madness is just a little too strong to not feel vaguely annoyed – irrespective of the film’s flaws, the island at the centre of it is definitely a place you won’t quickly forget.
Apostle does deliver a decent – if uneven and overlong – experience, though, with plenty of icky imagery that’ll stay with you for a long time after Netflix asks if you’re ready to move on to one of its other ten trillion offerings, and it does feel like Evans has been allowed to stay pretty much off the chain here, whether it’s resulted an altogether consistent affair or not.
Despite the film’s problems, that kind of freedom never really feels like a bad thing.
Apostle will land on Netflix on 12th October