It’s a very rare thing indeed for a critic to come across a piece of work that leaves a completely silent, vast, blank space in the mind where positive reactions are supposed to grow. I teach critical writing on occasion, and I am always at pains to emphasise the importance of balance, the importance of finding something of value in a piece of work, even if that piece of work ultimately fails in its ambitions. So with that in mind, let’s begin with the positives of Apostle, the new Netflix horror movie from writer-director Gareth Evans…
The grading is good. The greens are very green, the browns are a browny brown, the sky is definitely, noticeably blue. In HD, the viewer cannot help but notice the work that has gone in to making the period clothes. The make-up is generally good. Lucy Boynton does look tired, kind of like a woman from the 1800s would look tired. Or maybe it’s set a little later than that. But in any case, she still looks quite tired.
And now on to what is wrong with Apostle.
First the big things – we may not have space for much else. On the surface Apostle is a mouth-watering prospect: Gareth Evans, director of global smash hit martial arts movies The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2: Berendal (of which I am a devotee) returns to his homeland from Indonesia to create a gory folk horror that involves political intrigue, a cult, and some strong acting talent. Dan Stevens’ Thomas Richardson ships out to Michael Sheen’s island band of religious seekers whom he is told are holding his sister for ransom. The cult is penniless, you see, due to struggling crops, and so their voluntary isolation is undermined by needs must.
What Richardson discovers is that Plan A to remedy the starvation issue – and the reason Sheen brought his followers (and two brothers) out to the island in the first place – lies in the hands of a rather decrepit earth goddess who they seem to have holed up in a shed round the back of the village. I say “seem” because this goddess frequently pops up in that rather tired ghost-in-woods fashion, walking slowly, half-obscured by boughs and branches, like she’s a hiker looking for a place to have a wee. Indeed, we first meet her when Richardson is hiding in a tunnel, which possibly doubles as a septic system, rising from the shit like the zombie witch in Army of Darkness in one of the few decent images of the movie. Why is Richardson hiding in this tunnel? Well, his cloak and dagger search for his sister gets him into a few scrapes. And why does the tunnel exist? Well, for a while it seems to be the only route to the old woodshed where the earth goddess is all bound up and exploited (sometimes – when she’s not wandering freely in the woods or hanging out in the sewer). I say “for a while” because later on the film, after several scenes in this tunnel, Michael Sheen’s character Malcolm Howe, heads off Richardson by just walking around the long way. Realising our hero has been wading through excrement, only to discover he could have just walked through the woods to reach the same spot, is one of many unintentional laugh out loud moments of Apostle. (The biggest laugh is reserved for the moment when Boynton looks deep in Steven’s constipated face and says the immortal lines, “Your eyes; they have seen things.”)
Unfortunately, the laughs are not enough to keep it going, which is a crying shame because what a great pastiche this would have made. How I longed for the tongue-in-cheek of something like Army of Darkness. But sadly, no – it’s all ernest posturing and bedraggled plot lines.
But Apostle’s greatest crime is not the bad acting (Dan Stevens’ eyebrows deserve either an Oscar or a defibrillator – not sure which), the abysmal script (a pastiche of Hammer-esque King James Bible rhetoric), or the clumping nonsense of a storyline (does any of it really hang together?), but it is that it is interminably boring. Apostle throws an awful lot at the audience in its two hours, and it amounts to a strange flatness, from the anaemic performances of bankable hams like Sheen, to the rather meek attitude to gore in the final third.
There is a lack of tension that can only have been rendered from a fundamental misunderstanding of the needs of folk horror. If the grandparents of Apostle are The Wicker Man (1973), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), The Witches (1966) and the like, then Evans has forgotten that the terror of these movies lies in the inescapable sense of doom that permeates them. In each of these films there is a claustrophobic sense that gradually all is becoming lost – even the children are in on it. They are about the conspiratorial strangulating by a community of one pious individual in which all our hope rests. In Apostle, Howe’s cult is fragmented from the off, and the congregation already seem like prisoners rather than followers. Richardson has potential co-conspirators every hundred yards or so. Apostle is ultimately the story of one man turning up in a community in the process of disintegrating in disillusionment, rather than the suffocating horror of one man’s descent into hell.
But aside from all this, Evans, who has proved himself a filmmaker of unique energy and talent, seems to have created a movie grossly out of step with the cutting edge of horror. Here we have a movie that touches, but does not wish to engage, with the ideas and themes surrounding man’s existential attachment to fertility, to the mother God, and ultimately to the masculine relationship with womanhood. Even though this appears to be the fundamental theme of the entire story, the film-maker himself seems uninterested in it. Evans shows himself a somewhat superficial thinker when it comes to it. Horror is the greatest genre for the big questions, and the premise of Apostle suggests a movie positioned to tackle some of the most pertinent to our times – what it means to be a leader, and what it means to be a woman in a society constructed by men.
However, all of these themes in the film provide nothing more than an excuse for more blood (still not enough), more mud (the cult seems to have settled on the only part of the island where crops can’t grow). There is a distracting storyline of forbidden young love, which rather inexplicably leads Mark Lewis Jones’s Quinn to brutally murder his own daughter. The only reason seems to be that the movie really needs an irredeemable villain, and Michael Sheen’s character arc quickly sees him take a handbrake turn into a regretful, soft-hearted, misguided, patriarch.
Such violence against women, in a movie that displays in every frame a disinterest in its female characters, is unacceptable and should be called out. It is all the more sad that this is the case in a genre where strong female characters are now the norm. Just in the last few years, It Follows, The Babadook, A Quiet Place, Hereditary to name just a few, have proved horror is a place where women can create powerful roles and make important political statements. The time for boys-club horror movies is long gone. This messy, lacklustre, ill-thought-out effort will do nothing, thankfully, to encourage its resurrection.
Apostle is available for streaming now on Netflix.
You can hear Gary Raymond discuss Apostle and other things on BBC Radio Wales’ The Review Show Friday at 6:30pm and then available on BBC iPlayer.