'Apostle': Film Review | Fantastic Fest 2018

Fans of 'The Raid' should look elsewhere for their thrills.

Gareth Evans switches things up with a horror mystery starring Dan Stevens.

The hunt for a kidnapped woman leads to an island ruled by a mysterious cult in Apostle, a period horror film written and directed by Gareth Evans. Turning to gothic mystery after wowing action lovers with his two Raid films, Evans will likely disappoint many of the fans he has attracted here; while the pic does build to some gory battles, it's hardly a thrill ride. Meanwhile, those familiar with the story's forebears (expect comparisons to The Wicker Man) may find it lacking in the dread department, especially when compared to contemporaries like Ben Wheatley's Kill List.

Set at the start of the 20th century, the film introduces Thomas (Dan Stevens) as a man damaged by unknown hardship. His sister is being held for ransom on the island of Erisden, but their father is in no condition to deal with kidnappers. Thomas is sent to find her, intending to pass himself off as just another pilgrim among those who follow a prophet named Malcolm (Michael Sheen).

Having made the rough-waters trip to this island and been shown to his living quarters, Thomas immediately becomes a stink-eyed spy, sneaking out after curfew and trying to make sense of the odd things he sees. Things like the jars of blood outside the bedrooms of the faithful, which Malcolm's people collect nightly.

Easier to understand is the sweet love story between two of the island's few young people — a secret to everyone, but immediately discovered by Thomas. They're the children of two of the community's founding fathers, and the more we see of that older generation, the more we wonder what happened to the founding mothers. Malcolm and his closest helpers, like the stern Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones), all appear to be single men, and though the script doesn't make a point of it, it seems like the island only has room for one mature, powerful woman — the mysterious "She," who turns out to be the supernatural recipient of all those jars of blood.

With its focus on Thomas' fairly conventional detective mission, the movie spends less time than it might have developing the conflict between Malcolm and his lieutenants, one of whom will rather abruptly become the true heavy in the story's last act. If the film's "what's going on here?" slow-burn is slow but not very burn-y, it does at least benefit from some mucky organic texture and an excellent score by Aria Prayogi and Fajar Yuskemal, composers on Evans' Indonesian films.

Gorehounds will perk up when the cult leaders start dealing with their enemies and finding enemies among those they love. Multiple sequences feature primitive but effective-looking torture devices, one of which threatens to turn our hero to human mulch — the better to haul off in buckets to feed the island's goddess. The Grand Guignol factor climbs throughout the final third, but while climactic battles are violent, they never really thrill. (Now that trip through a hidden sewer, on the other hand...)

Apparently wearing some prosthetic teeth that make his often-clenched grimace more rugged, Stevens looks fierce but doesn't credibly reach the character's darker places. Sheen, on the other hand, seems prepared to go further with Malcolm than the movie will allow. Neither man is headed for a particularly happy end, but the scary-fable finale here is hardly the stuff of nightmares.

Production companies: One More One Productions, Severn Screen, XYZ Films
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Dan Stevens, Michael Sheen, Mark Lewis Jones, Kristine Froseth, Lucy Boynton, Mark Milner
Director-screenwriter-editor: Gareth Evans
Producers: Gareth Evans, Ed Talfan, Aram Tertzakian
Executive producers: Nate Bolotin, Nick Spicer
Director of photography: Matt Flannery
Production designer: Tom Pearce
Costume designer: Jane Spicer
Composers: Aria Prayogi, Fajar Yuskemal
Casting director: Louise Cross
Venue: Fantastic Fest

129 minutes