The Raid and its sequel are two of the fastest, toughest, most brutal action movies ever made, and have turned the genre world on its head. Though made in Indonesia with a completely Indonesian cast, The Raid movies were directed by a Welshman named Gareth Huw Evans, and in the years since his one-two (thousand) punch action pair, he’s been dreaming up a very British horror movie, one that tackles the subgenre of “folk horror” in ways reminiscent of The Wicker Man or Blood on Satan’s Claw. That movie, Apostle, is eerie and strange like the genre mandates, but with small glimpses of Evans’ Raid roots.The tenets of folk horror mandate that God-fearing Christians get caught up with filthy pagans of some manner, either Satan worshipers or people who pray to some other god and therefore their ways are frightening and bad. Apostle takes a different tact by giving us a compound of “fundamentalist pagans,” who certainly have Christian iconography in their past but have given over to worshiping a being that’s wholly ancient and other, but still act like Puritans and have horrifying implements of purification that feel like the Spanish Inquisition. Apostle holds its cards for quite a long way into the 129-minute runtime, but what we learn early on is that there’s an isolated island off the coast of the UK where a group of people in the early 1900s have gone to practice their specific brand of religion, worshiping a nature goddess who gives them bountiful harvests. The island is governed over by a trio of elders, the leader of which is the mysterious and intense Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen). They have, it seems, been without bountiful harvests for a good long while and have kidnapped the daughter of a wealthy man on one of their recruitment trips and is holding her ransom. This sends her brother, the embittered former Christian missionary Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens), on a clandestine journey to get her back, without giving the perpetrators any money, and likely taking their lives in the process. Very soon upon arrival, Richardson sees how strange the place is, and sees glimpses of a woman who may in fact be the deity in question. However, there are good people on the island; Malcolm’s daughter Andrea (Lucy Boynton) is the designated medic on the island and had a good head on her shoulders, while the son (Bill Milner) of one of the other elders and the daughter (Kristine Froseth) of another have secretly fallen in love and sneak off to be together, even though her father (Mark Lewis Jones) has strictly forbidden it. But Richardson can’t gallivant on the island long, because the prophet knows someone’s come for the prisoner, and that the king’s spies have evidently sent assassins to kill him. In short, something needs to be done soon.The movie takes its time to build up the characters and the scenic but forbidding location, and the mystery of who or what is causing the island to grow barren begins to unfold as Richardson looks for his sister. All the while, Evans explores the tenuous faith of the people on the island, especially the elders. While they began the settlement as a utopian society full of happiness, love, and devotion, the lack of food and the propensity for newborn animals to come out misshapen and die quickly has left them feeling forsaken by their god. But their god is not treated particularly well, it turns out, and the lengths to which they go to assure their way of life continues goes into some pretty dark and decidedly un-pious territory. When the story finally kicks off into full blown horror, when Richardson is running for his life, we see a lot more of the Raid shining through; and just for brief moments, you realize what a Dan Stevens-led beat-em-up movie would look like. Stevens is shifty and animalistic as Richardson, a man holding onto his sanity almost entirely through his love for his sister and the hope that she’s alive, and he’s put through nearly literal hell while society begins to break down around him. Sheen is excellent as the conflicted leader of the island, and not at all the sort of frothing despot you might expect. Much more nuanced.Ultimately Apostle mainly succeeds by giving us just enough of the supernatural to keep us guessing and focusing on the very visceral horror of the blindly devout. With tinges of movies about torturing accused witches and cults putting innocent people to torment, Evans gives us a lovely melange of a largely bygone genre. While nothing is as virtuosic here as in The Raid movies, Apostle is nevertheless a satisfying, gory, and strange trek into religious terror.
4 out of 5
Apostle debuts on Netflix Friday, October 12.
Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!