Skip to main content

Prepare the Heathen’s Stand! By order of purification!

Apostle
(2018)

(SPOILERS) Another week, another undercooked Netflix flick from an undeniably talented director. What’s up with their quality control? Do they have any? Are they so set on attracting an embarrassment of creatives, they give them carte blanche, to hell with whether the results are any good or not? Apostle's an ungainly folk-horror mashup of The Wicker Man (most obviously, but without the remotest trace of that screenplay's finesse) and any cult-centric Brit horror movie you’d care to think of (including Ben Wheatley's, himself an exponent of similar influences-on-sleeve filmmaking with Kill List), taking in tropes from Hammer, torture porn, and pagan lore but revealing nothing much that's different or original beyond them.


Set in 1905, Dan Stevens' "Thomas Richardson", all haunted and distracted, arrives on the island of Erisden, seeking to recover his sister, who is – apparently – being ransomed. Disappointingly, this is actually the case; it isn’t a lure à la The Wicker Man, probably because Evans forgets to give this cult a sense of unity that would account for their appeal. Indeed, the motivations of the island’s "elders" are entirely prosaic. Which makes the supernatural element in turn much less interesting; it's laid bare for all to see, such that as soon as it's introduced as a bone fide uncanny element, it's rendered borderline banal. 


One might suggest the fantastical streak is a break with how these tales traditionally play out – that there’s a genuine supernatural source behind the antagonists' eccentric and delusional beliefs borne of isolation from larger society – but I felt it actively reduced the effectiveness of the picture. Indeed, this element is further weighed down by a clumsy character "arc", whereby Stevens' character was left wanting by his Christian God, but the pagan island deity actively embraces him in his hour of need, providing him with meaning and sustenance in the final frame; like much of the picture, it illustrates that, while we know Gareth Evans can direct the shit out of material, he can't write for it. There are so many ways this movie might have gone that could have been rewarding, but instead, we're left scrambling about in reductive genre entrails, ones suggesting Evans is more a Neil Marshall type than someone with a distinctive voice to support his distinctive visual sense.


What Apostle does has going for it – at least during the first hour of its vastly over-inflated running time – is a tug to discover what precisely is going on in this South Wales-filmed milieu. But alas, it's inversely proportional to the dissatisfaction of the pay off. Evans never bothers to give us sufficient insight into the workings of the island community. Everyone has a Book According to the Prophet Malcolm in their rooms, and there's a triumvirate of original arrivals (Michael Sheen's Malcolm, Paul Higgins' Frank and Mark Lewis Jones' Quinn) who hold order and – revealed eventually in several over-expository and unnecessary flashbacks – enslaved the existing inhabitant to their will in order to – very The Wicker Man– guarantee good crops. 


But there's no sense of the organisation of Erisden or the beliefs of the population (Evans has mentioned proto-communism in interviews, but you wouldn’t know it from the movie), with an iron fist of guards in place of any devotion (which is where The Wicker Man got its chills). Likewise, Frank blanches at what’s going on as if he wasn’t aware of the full extent of the atrocities, and Malcolm expresses his wavering involvement – two of the three leaders – yet the trees are filled with corpses and there's a custom-designed gimp with his own fully operational torture chamber. Wouldn't the declining island population have come to the attention of the residents at some point (and if they're on board with the general sacrificial aspect, what with their self-induced bloodletting, why aren't they all desperately fearful about being next)?


Apostle lacks a trace of the depth of The Wicker Man's approach to ritual and belief, or the elegance. Which is unfortunate, as it persistently and actively invites comparison with that classic. Here we have a distracted and incohesive cult, their leaders' various motivations eventually laid out through lumpen dumps of explanatory dialogue that would have been far better left to the imagination, the same with the overt appeal to nature spirits (the blood-infused island acting through a human "Mother Nature" avatar).


Evans occasionally offers an interesting image – a cross on a hill revealed to be the mast of a stranded ship – but on this evidence, he isn't really such an artful director when bereft of bone-crunching, limb- or artery-severing violence; he’s most galvanised when Stevens is spearing a couple of captors, and much more interested in goring his characters, be it fatal trepanning, or removal of digits – or if not dismembering then subjecting them to a stream of effluent – than he is in developing them.


The period dialogue has the occasional flourish, but the script issues are more fundamental; Evans is unable to imbue a sense of how this community has operated for what must be several decades, and would rather distract us with obvious folk horror imagery (children in masks, ritual cave paintings). Most problematic is his tendency to over-telegraph. "Your eyes, they've seen things" says Ffion (Kristine Froseth) of Thomas. "Who are you?" she asks, as if Batman has arrived on the island (his flashbacks would also have been much better left out; Evans feels the need to have him branded with a giant cross, for goodness' sake). Stevens has found a niche playing against his looks of late, but this pales next to The Guest or Legion, and he frequently comes across as if he's caricaturing previous, better roles.


Out of the supporting cast, Lewis Jones creates a memorably loathsome antagonist as Quinn, unnaturally obsessed with daughter Ffion and jealous of Malcom's reign. Unfortunately, these traits rather underline his B-movie baddie status, the kind who elicits a cathartic cheer as he's bashed about the head while having his chest ripped open. Sheen is good 'n' all, with a big bushy beard, but both he and Higgins are required to breathe life into mostly empty vessels. 


None of this is to deny Evans' skills as a filmmaker. While indulgently overlong, Apostle is quite watchable. It just isn't very well written. There's barely a scene that isnt derivative of something else (the island "exploding" at the end even put me in mind of The Land That Time Forgot) which means it isn’t really doing its job of drawing you in. There's an argument that, like Marshall's work, he's making unashamedly cheesy exploitation cinema and so Apostle is doing exactly what it says on the tin. But at the same time, it seems to want to be something more than that, that Evans doesn't just want to be regarded as an action maestro. Unfortunately, he only manages to make you think you've seen this all before, in a slightly different order or arrangement and done better. 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

That Freud stuff’s a bunch of hooey.

Spellbound (1945)
Spellbound is something of a stumbling follow-up to Rebecca, producer David O Selznick’s previous collaboration with Hitchcock. Selznick was a devotee of psychoanalysis, and the idea of basing a film on the subject was already in the mind of the director. To that end, the producer’s own therapist, May Romm, was brought in as a technical advisor (resulting in Hitchcock’s famous response when she pointed out an inaccuracy, “My dear, it’s only a movie”).

So long, sky trash!

Star Wars The Saga Ranked
This is an update of my 2018 ranking, with the addition of highly-acclaimed The Rise of Skywalker along with revisits to the two preceding parts of the trilogy. If you want to be generous and call it that, since the term it makes it sound a whole lot more coherent than it plays.