Gareth Evans, the Welsh filmmaker who spent several years in Indonesia directing the best martial arts movies of the modern age, didn’t want to make another popcorn beat ‘em up so soon. But in approaching his period horror Apostle, the Evans found unexpected similarities between thrilling audiences with mind-blowing action and scaring them with sheer terror.

“I was struck by how much of the filmmaking DNA stayed the same between action and horror,” Evans tells Inverse. “That increase in pressure and ‘release valve mechanism’ of it all. They’re both visual means of storytelling.”

Between 2009 and 2014, Evans directed Merantau, The Raid, and The Raid 2, a trio of martial arts films that won over critics and action movie buffs alike. The most popular, 2011’s The Raid, follows a heroic cop in Jakarta who relies on his wits and unparalleled skill in the Indonesian martial art Pencak Silat to escape an apartment building overrun by a drug cartel.

For his next film, Evans wanted a drastic change of scenery. “While being amazing for me on a creative level, I didn’t want to do another marital arts story,” he says. “I didn’t want to get pigeonholed into one type of genre.”

Apostle Netflix Dan Stevens
Dan Stevens in 'Apostle.'

In 2016, he began writing what would become Apostle that began streaming on Netflix last week. Taking place on a remote English island in 1905, Apostle stars Dan Stevens (FX’s Legion) as Thomas, an ex-Christian missionary who infiltrates a religious cult to rescue his kidnapped sister. The film also stars Michael Sheen, Mark Lewis Jones, and Paul Higgins as the cult’s leaders who secretly enslave a supernatural deity that gives the island its fauna.

Apostle isn’t Evans’ first stab at horror. In 2013, between Raid films, Evans co-directed “Safe Haven” in the horror anthology V/H/S/2 with German-Indonesian filmmaker Timo Tjahanto. But as a found footage short, Evans felt he could only do so much.

“It was POV,” he says. “We were limited in how to use the camera. “Apostle gave me a chance to really explore horror across all bases.”

As Apostle afforded more dimensional space for Evans to tell his story, the director found similarities, and some key psychological differences, in directing the tense sequences of Apostle to the violence of The Raid.

“There are certain things that share DNA,” he says. “The inevitable way of how we shot action or shot violence is gonna carry across the films we made. There are touchstones that feel similar to what we did on The Raid. But the psychological approach is different.”

The Raid
Joe Taslim and Yayan Ruhian, in Gareth Evans' 'The Raid.'

While The Raid “exist like crowd pleasers,” the short bursts of violence, in Apostle (which bears a resemblance to the camera work in The Raid, if you squint) isn’t meant to pump up audiences. Much of that is rooted in Dan Stevens’ Thomas, a former Christian missionary who was tortured in China during the Boxer Rebellion. He’s a survivor, not a fighter.

“Thomas shouldn’t be someone who has a skillset as a fighter,” Evans says. “He has 20 seconds of what you can consider an ‘action’ beat. The rest of the time, it’s pure survival. That was the approach we wanted with Dan.”

The origins of Apostle go back to a short film Evans made even before he shot a second of Silat action. In 2004, the director made a short about two lost siblings searching for each other. “It was a small concept that mushroomed as we kept developing the idea, adding layer after layer,” he explains.

It became a horror film when Evans moved back to the UK from Indonesia, where he plunged into British folk horror for “that unusual aesthetic, how every character is slightly askew and off-kilter in a way that made you nervous.” He chose the early 20th century, because “there was never going to be a scene where he’s searching for a phone signal.” That, Evans says, is to “ramp up intensity, that sense of dread in every frame of the film.”

And it became a religious horror film when, while writing in 2016, Evans saw the world around him, from arrogant politicians to the unrelenting presence of the terrorist group then calling itself ISIS.

Apostle Netflix Martin Sheen
Martin Sheen, in 'Apostle.'

“I was just pulling from headlines,” he says. “The best horror films are reflective of a period of time. That subtext is a reflection of where we were globally in terms of civilization and in my own little anxieties.”

But Apostle, like his action movies, is still meant to entertain. It’s just that Evans isn’t using the same tricks he used in The Raid.

“They’re roller coaster rides,” he says of his martial arts films. “You jump on and get ripped up by. Apostle, the violence is about having an emotional impact.”

Apostle is streaming now on Netflix.

Photos via Netflix, Sony Pictures