Apostle is a folk horror movie exclusive to Netflix, and the best way to describe it is if you imagine The Wicker Man, Black Death, and The Raid being placed in a blender. It’s part remote island cult movie, part torture porn, and part cynical protagonist knocking ten bells of shit out of the zealots. It’s awesome.
There’s not a lot of substance here, just style – which is to be expected from The Raid director Gareth Evans. Set in 1905, former priest (turned non-believer) Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) is sent to a remote Welsh to rescue his sister Jennifer from a cult. Posing as a potential convert, Thomas is able to sneak onto the island, which resembles something from Resident Evil 4 by being at least 100 years out of date.
Here the people live in commune like conditions and believe that the surprisingly abundant plant life is the result of blood magic. Thomas is able to get in with the leadership – led by Malcolm (Michael Sheen) – easily by exploiting the island community’s problems. Inevitably, things go sideways. The affable leader is replaced by a real hard-ass (Mark Lewis Jones) and the medieval torture devices come out.
As mentioned, there’s not a lot of substance to Apostle. Sure, it probably thinks it’s fairly clever – in the same way that Rik from The Young Ones thought he was The People’s Poet. Given the cult’s dark secret (imprisoning and torturing a nature spirit) there’s a loose green parable. There’s also commentary on faith and its fragility, as Thomas struggles to believe after he was tortured for his Christian beliefs during the Boxer Rebellion. But really, we’re here for the brutal torture scenes and violent fights.
Perhaps then, Apostle is simply the honest sort of folk horror film. It understands that folk horror, ultimately, taps into the insecurities of the modern world and seeks comfort in the barbarism and ancient traditions of more brutal times and societies. In these sort of films there is always an uneasily conflict between the civilised and uncivilised, between the concrete jungle and the nature world it seeks to subdue.
There’s a beautiful element to folk horror; lush hills, freedom, free and natural sex, and rites which bring people together. Under all of that is the grisly truth: the violence, oppression, and madness. Apostle just mostly does away with the former and doubles down on the darker aspects. There’s no need for it to offer the carrot of paganism, only the stick.
Like the films from which it draws inspiration, Apostle favours the steady slow-burn of crafting an oppressive isolating atmosphere. It certainly looks the part, with gloomy medieval buildings, occult imagery, bitter scenery, as well as weirder environments such as tunnels of putrid blood, forests of rotten vegetation, and a rather Lovecraftian shed that features an old god bathed in blood and consumed by plants. It seems that the cult have broken the natural order by chaining up a nature spirit and gorging it on blood. Now, corruption seeps throughout the island. Didn’t the hippies teach us anything?