Folk horror is a rich genre, but its firmly established hallmarks sometimes make it difficult for individual films to stand out from the pagan pack. From Midsommar and The Witch to The Village and even Hot Fuzz, if there’s something sinister going on in an isolated community, you’ve likely seen it before. How do you create a story that honors the traditions of folk horror while still pushing the envelope? This 2018 movie, now streaming on Netflix, offers one answer: by turning all the tropes of the folk-horror genre up to 11.
Written, directed, and edited by Gareth Evans (The Raid), Apostle stars Dan Stevens (The Guest) as Thomas Richardson, an ex-missionary who travels to a remote Welsh island in order to find his sister. Thomas believes she’s being held captive for ransom by a religious cult on the island. But when he first comes ashore, he encounters a utopian society where conflict and violence are deterred in favor of peaceful living.
That doesn’t last long.
As Thomas soon discovers, power on this island is split precariously between the cult’s three founders – but in a particular position of authority is the righteous, unflinchingly evil Malcolm (Michael Sheen using his rarely heard native Welsh accent). The island holds a secret much darker than Thomas could have imagined, which leads to some truly heart-stopping moments as he unravels the mystery of his sister’s captivity.
“I’ve always loved the films where it’s like you’re building up to something,” Evans told SlashFilm while discussing Apostle’s structure. “You’re getting a drip feed of mystery and tension and suspense, and then all of a sudden you flick the first domino and it just free-wheels until the climax.”
Like most movies about cults, Apostle challenges us to consider the very nature of faith. What images and experiences could be strong enough to make someone lose all sense of their previous convictions? What’s the difference between faith in a higher power, and faith in a more sinister, eldritch being (perhaps one living beneath an idyllic village)?
These questions are underlined by Evans, who employs powerful mythological imagery and classic tropes: the young lovers, the righteous apostle, the divine entity. Apostle feels like a parable in some holy text coveted by an especially grim cult.
While the film’s story is classical, its aesthetic is not. Calling this movie “gory” would be a gross understatement (with an emphasis on gross). In one sequence, a character is secured to a table as a large screw is slowly turned toward his skull. It’s not for the faint of heart, but beneath the surface of all this bloodshed lies the divine purpose of Evans’ story.
Evans told The Verge of his approach to that scene:
“I’m going to show you how this machine works. But when it comes time for it to be used, I’m going to cut away to people’s reactions, to be away from the detail of the gore. You’ll see enough to put the rest of it, absolutely pun intended, in your own head.”
Though much of the violence is not explicitly depicted, it’s a highly visceral watch. The same can be said for Apostle as a whole. Every element of the folk-horror genre – from the violence to the world-building to the cult of personality that forms around Malcolm – is amplified to a terrifying extent. The result? A minimalist cult thriller packing the maximum possible punch.
Apostle is now streaming on Netflix.