Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from Fantastic Fest.
Back in 1973, Robin Hardy completed his shocking cult classic The Wicker Man just in time to see a shakeup at studio British Lion erode all support for his movie. “I think this is one of the 10 worst films I’ve ever seen,” the new studio head told star Christopher Lee, before recutting and then burying the film. But Wicker Man still built a significant reputation over the years, based on word of mouth about its frank eroticism, building dread, and unforgettable ending. A 2002 special-edition home-video release restored missing footage and reconsidered the film’s legacy, but among horror fans, that legacy was never in doubt, even after Neil LaBute’s legendarily awful 2006 remake, starring Nicolas Cage.
Like other hard-to-find cult features — especially horror movies — the original Wicker Man had its greatest impact on serious cinephiles who went to the trouble of tracking it down. From Roger Corman’s rough-and-ready shock-value cinema (he attempted to buy the movie for American distribution in the 1970s) to Ben Wheatley’s modern British pastorals, filmmakers have drawn from The Wicker Man for nearly 50 years.
The latest to draw from the well is The Raid director Gareth Evans, who begins his new Netflix horror-drama Apostle almost exactly where The Wicker Man starts, then uses the setup to build his own mesmerizingly tense narrative. Apostle is nothing like a Wicker Man remake — it’s more a mix-and-match project, incorporating other visible influences from British horror, with Evans’ distinctive directorial voice dominating the mix. In spite of the 1905 setting, it’s also a decidedly modern horror movie, with whipcrack pacing, CGI effects, and extreme gore. But the bones of this project are familiar ones, and fans of classic cerebral horror will recognize the specific feelings of looming dread and wonder that horror cinema so often misses in the rush to get to jump scares and sequel setups.
What’s the genre?
If 1970s British horror is its own separate genre, this film is squarely in it. If not, call Apostle a fantastically gory dread-soaked horror mystery, and you’re close enough. But it’s worth noting that Evans has described it as a “Welsh Western,” the kind of Shane-esque film where a lone gunslinger ambles into an insular community, bringing justice and trouble along with him.
What’s it about?
Like The Wicker Man, Apostle begins with a man getting a letter drawing him to a remote religious community in the British Isles, where he’s been asked to save a life. Thomas (Legion star Dan Stevens) is a troubled drug addict, disowned by his father and generally on the outs with society. But he returns home when his father receives a letter claiming that Thomas’ sister Jennifer (Elen Rhys) has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom. Sent to find her, Thomas schemes his way in among a group of pilgrims headed for a tiny island off Wales, where a group of outcasts practice their own strange pagan religion. They live simple, ascetic lives and work the land for sustenance, but they also leave bottles of their own blood sitting outside their rooms at night, and talk reverently about the sea making decisions for them.
Thomas rapidly discovers the community isn’t as uniform as it seems. Two young people, Ffion (Kristine Froseth) and Jeremy (Bill Milner) are engaged in a secret affair and planning to run away. Ffion’s intimidating thug of a father, Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones), is leaning increasingly heavily on Malcolm (Michael Sheen), the prophet and leader of the community, to change his beliefs and behaviors. Malcolm’s adult daughter Andrea (Lucy Boynton) also seems like a troublemaker who doesn’t fully hold with the island’s precepts and has an immediate interest in Thomas. Somewhere on the island, someone is holding Jennifer in hiding, waiting for the ransom they demanded. But very early in the film, there are indicators that there’s another force on the island that isn’t human, and that has its own agenda.
What’s it really about?
The many problematic aspects of religion, from the ways it’s often received (through prophets and apostles who believe God’s word in their ears absolves them of any atrocities they commit in realizing their goals) to the ways it can be warped by self-serving manipulators. Add in the dangers of a flock of believers who disengage their minds and their moral responsibilities in favor of blindly following a leader, and the dangers of brutal persecution from non-believers, and religion in Apostle starts looking like a pretty raw deal, even when some believers’ faith is outright confirmed. The analysis doesn’t run deep in Apostle — there’s no significant examination of the positives of religion, or even what it means to anyone in the film past the first flashes of inspiration. But it’s a pretty wide-ranging list of the hazards of belief, and of living in a society alongside believers.
Is it good?
From the opening moments, Apostle is mesmerizing, largely thanks to Stevens’ performance. He’s played an intense and brooding character before, in the terrific Adam Wingard throwback horror movie The Guest, or under a mountain of CGI in Disney’s live-action atrocity Beauty and the Beast. He’s a charismatic performer, but he’s never thrown himself physically into a role the way he does here. Thomas shows up on-screen glowering and cringing at the same time, looking like he simultaneously expects a vicious attack and is ready to sink his teeth into the throat of any attacker. It takes quite a while for Apostle to get around to revealing the backstory that shaped his personality, but that personality is instantly evident, and it gives the film a feeling of constant danger. Thomas feels unpredictable and on-edge. Even in a tranquil, safe environment, he’d be a center of compelling drama.
But that familiar Wicker Man setup throws him into the deep end right away. It’s just as immediately obvious that he’s in over his head — he’s trying to infiltrate an insular group where everyone accepts the same strange religious precepts, and he has no idea what they are. And he’s more adept with a pocket razor than with a friendly social bluff. Add in the genuinely startling and disturbing elements at work on the island, and Apostle keeps up a steady rate of shocks, many of them extremely gory. Evans isn’t out to make a Halloween horror film — this is more thriller than slasher — but the body parts pile up quickly, and the violence is intense and shocking.
The biggest knock against the film is that there are too many plot currents to fully let the characters shine. Andrea never develops a purpose in the movie, beyond a sympathetic sounding board and convenient resource-vendor for Thomas, and Malcolm is a potentially rich character who gets overshadowed quickly and thoroughly by the drama building around Jeremy, Ffion, and Thomas. Even Thomas seems to disappear into himself at various points in the story, becoming more of a narrative tool than a meaningful protagonist. Meanwhile, the community itself edges up to having a personality at the beginning of the story, then fades into a dim backdrop of generic grey folk, going along with any prevailing wind. (Consider the constant colorful presence of the Summerisle residents in the original Wicker Man — a similarly fraught community, but one with plenty of individual personalities.)
But these wind up seeming like minor quibbles as the tension builds and the truth unfolds. Even where the film trips up over the complexity of Evans’ structure, it still feels admirable that he didn’t make this a simple black-and-white, hero-vs.-villain story. The places where Thomas occasionally seems lost among other plotlines and conflicting agendas do reflect the character’s confusion in winding up in such a desolate place, with so many revelations that shake his worldview and threaten his life. Apostle occasionally seems entirely over the top — the last-act conflict degenerates into a particularly gory mess that seems gratuitous after the sadder, stranger, more human battles that precede it. But for the most part, it’s a breathlessly oppressive experience, a dark and sometimes strikingly beautiful film that lives up to its most obvious cinematic forefathers.
What should it be rated?
R. So much R. Gallons and gallons of mangled, bloody, graphically torturous R.
How can I actually watch it?
Apostle premieres on Netflix US on October 12th.