Ah, period horror. If you know me, you know I’m not ashamed to admit my affinity for less-than-well received horror. (I’m writing this while I still die on the “Found Footage movies are good“ hill.) Period horror movies are my bag. And not just a little my bag. A lot my bag. I love the isolation of a pilgrim village, adorable goats and sheep stealing the show, and Hollywood’s strange affinity for making everyone slightly British and thinking we can suitably suspend our disbelief to believe we’re hearing Olde English. (Not speaking to you, The VVitch, you guys went hard for the dialect thing. But again, goat stole the show.)
I was on board when M. Night Shyamalan headed into the woods with Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard for The Village (2004), (which is another “It’s good” hill I frequent), and I’ve been on board anytime A24 decides to puts on its pilgrim pants; namely with The VVitch (2015) and It Comes At Night (sorta). It’s also worth mentioning standouts such as The Others (2001) starring Nicole Kidman, Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999), and now – Apostle (2018).
Written and directed by Gareth Evans (The Raid, V/H/S 2 – segment “Safe Haven”) Apostle follows Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens, The Guest), who travels to a remote island to rescue his sister from a religious cult. It’s 1905, so expect lots of tweed jackets.
His sister hasn’t run off to join the cult though – as Thomas returns home after a seemingly extended, unplanned absence – he learns she was kidnapped by the cult and held for ransom. His father entrusts him to travel to the cult under the guise of joining the ranks of the members to confirm she is indeed still alive and in their captive before producing the ransom. Which, I mean – while you’ve done all the effort to Trogan Horse your way in, why not just steal her and f*ck shit up, amiright?
Getting in won’t be easy, though. Thomas is confronted with a series of obstacles, scraping through undetected by sheer luck and happenstance. He passes a series of ‘identity checks’ – which in 1905 is nothing more then furtive glances and gut feelings – and slowly makes his way towards the village. The route is arduous. A boat, more boats, and a heck of a lot of field tromping. When we arrive, it looks almost like a regular pilgrim town. Women hanging laundry, children trolloping through the mud, I’m pretty sure someone was chopping wood – pilgrimy.
But it isn’t long before things turn suspicious in this sleepy, religious town. Not unlike Shyamalan’s The Village, Thomas learns the cult was formed by a trio of men, avoiding the war and strife of regular society. Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen, Underworld) serves as the leader, appointed for his alleged ability to talk directly to the strange deity they worship. Curious.
“For those of you who think period horror usually drags, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when the weird and unexplainable begins on night one.”
We learn very little about the inner workings of their religion, and one of my only checkboxes left un-ticked at the end of Apostle was that I wanted to spend a few more moments in the warm-up. Thomas only gets a few instances of snooping before this film begins pealing back its mysterious layers. For those of you who think period horror usually drags, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when the weird and unexplainable begins on night one. I, however, appreciate the build-up of a slower story. I want to know how the villagers eat dinner. I want to know what roles everyone plays in society. I want to see who knows who, and why some of the lesser players have trekked out here to the middle of nowhere in the first place.
What we do learn – this cult is devout. And devout in the creepiest of ways. While snooping, as one who’s secretly infiltrating a cult does, Thomas discovers a nightly offering expected of each of the villagers. Peering through a crack in the door, we watch as a couple prepare theirs. Each takes a hearty stab at their arm, collecting the blood in a glass vase. The vase is then left outside their door, old testament style. Curiouser.
And this mystery just keeps unspooling. There is a sense of tenseness and desperation ready to implode. The harvests have been fruitless. Animals born are deformed. Those who question the faith or the leadership are swiftly and privately handled by a militia that frequently march through the village streets, their shadows ominously passing the small, wooden abodes.
I won’t spoil the major elements at play in the film – the best part of a cult flick is devouring the heart of the story piece by piece in the manner they serve it – but rest assured Apostle does indeed dive headfirst into horror territory. Audiences expecting the hand-to-hand action expected of Evans’ will be happily served, as those hoping for an eerier, more haunting experience. Oh, and gore. There’s a deliciously twisted amount of it. An ungodly amount, even.
Apostle delivers on cinematic fronts, too. This film uses skewed angles, and the absolute best depiction of character POV I’ve ever seen, to add an extra touch of “this train has gone of the rails” during the climax. Better still, Evans uses a delicate hand when it does. We don’t go full magic mushroom. The camera tilts just enough to perk our ears.
Overall, Apostle is a deeply satisfying trek into the unknown. Despite a couple of odd choices (watch for an obtuse pregnancy test’ scene), this film offers horror aplenty. There is gore, there is violence, there is mystery, and yes – even some goats.
Apostle premieres on Netflix on October 12th. The film celebrated its world premiere at Fantastic Fest 2018. Check out all of Nightmare on Film Street’s Fantastic Fest coverage here!