Few filmmakers have as little to prove to genre fans as Gareth Evans. In the wake of his work on The Raid franchise — and his co-director credit on V/H/S 2’s ‘Safe Haven,’ arguably the most memorable short horror film of the decade — Evans has proven himself to be a dynamic filmmaker with an impressive grasp of both staging and stage. The worlds that Evans creates onscreen are utterly unique, often drawing upon the filmmaker’s influences to create something that looks and feels only like itself. If pushed, this would also suffice as an apt description of Apostle, Evans’s new action/horror hybrid and his first feature-length film since 2016’s The Raid: Redemption. Despite the familiar elements at play, Apostle is its own bloody mess, in every sense of the phrase.
Thomas (Dan Stevens), the son of a 19th century businessman, has suddenly reappeared after years lost in another country. It turns out being dead is not without its advantages; given that Thomas’s sister has been abducted by a local religious sect and held against her will on a distant island, Thomas uses his newfound anonymity allows him to infiltrate their community and begin a house-to-house search for his missing kin. Armed only with a rusty razor blade and a bottle of liquid painkiller, Thomas begins to explore the history of Prophet Malcom’s (Michael Sheen) community and the dark secret that drives their success. Is Malcom just another smalltime grifter or have he and his men stumbled upon something some unknown power buried beneath the island?
Apostle is not what anyone would call a particularly focused film — as a genre hybrid, it is often pulled in two or three different directions at once — but here Evans proves that his inventive eye for bodily mayhem transcends the action genre. Evans is in full-blown survival-horror mode, creating a world of ancient entities and blood-spattered minions that would not feel out of place in a big screen Silent Hill adaptation. The power of the island — and, therefore, the power of its settlers — is kept alive through a regular contribution of blood; who and what is being fed is something for audiences to experience themselves, of course, but there will undoubtedly be those who stumble across the film on Netflix and are unprepared for the bloody mayhem Evans has in mind for them. There‘s certainly a good bit more ‘Safe Haven’ than The Raid in Apostle’s DNA.
Naturally, this type of bloody melodrama requires a very specific type of performance from its lead. You could name a half-dozen different reasons why Stevens should’ve disappeared into blockbuster anonymity at this point in his career — certainly nobody would fault him for coasting on the success of a film like Beauty and the Beast — but Stevens possesses a thread of absurdity as an actor that he seems determined to tug. Those who have seen Legion know how comfortable Stevens is bringing his own Bugs Bunny energy to a role; the battle-scarred missionary he plays in Apostle is no different. Stevens’s Richardson is a construction of nervous tics and bulging eyes, acting choices that might’ve sunk a more traditional folk-horror production but feels right at home in the world that Evans has created. Even with the performance veers on goofy, it always fits within the aesthetic of the film.
By comparison, Sheen elects to play things relatively straight, here sporting a Peaky Blinders haircut and a trimmed-down tree branch he uses as a walking stick. One of the smartest decisions in the film is that it doesn’t play coy with Malcom’s divinity; almost as soon as Richardson arrives on the island, we see Malcom and his followers bickering about the best way to collect the ransom money from whoever has infiltrated their community. Malcom is no god; he’s not even a particularly effective theocrat. He’s just a man who stumbled across something old and powerful and immediately began to twist it to his will. Watching this character scramble to keep control over his Lovecraftian empire — even in the face of followers who would like to assume his power for themselves — is one of the movie’s many small pleasures.
And while Apostle may not be the action movie nor the conventional folk-horror audiences were expecting, it does deliver an ending drenched in fire and blood that would make fans of the original Wicker Man happy. There is no shortage of intelligent and genre-bending independent horror films for audiences to enjoy these days, but there’s still something special in seeing what an ambitious and creative filmmaker can with a solid Hollywood budget. Let’s hope this isn’t the last time Netflix gives a filmmaker like Evans the freedom to go wherever his blood-soaked heart may take him.