Welsh director Gareth Evans burst onto the scene in 2011 with his searing action film, “The Raid,” which showcases the traditional Indonesian martial art Pencak Silat. The film was a huge hit, leading to a 2014 sequel, “The Raid 2,” and both films cemented Evans’ place in action film history. But with his latest feature film, “Apostle,” Evans left martial arts behind for horror: in 1905, Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) travels to a remote island in search of his missing sister, who has been kidnapped by a strange cult.
“Apostle” isn’t the first time Evans dabbled in the horror genre, nor is it his first take on a cult. In 2013’s “V/H/S 2,” Evans co-directed “Save Haven” with Timo Tjahjanto, which follows a documentary crew who attempt to infiltrate an Indonesian cult, and discover unimaginable horrors in the process. But while “Safe Haven” was a hit with horror fans, Evans knew he needed to create an entirely new type of religious cult for “Apostle.” In a recent interview with IndieWire, the director explained how he drew upon some interesting influences to do so.
“What I wanted to kind of allude to in this movie was that idea of a group of people bound by faith who are being used as pawns in somebody else’s political movement,” Evans said. “So, it was about finding ways to sort of put those themes in the subtext of the movie, and in the subtext of the storyline. There was a line in there from Quinn where he says, ‘If you could get a person to kind of lay their life on the line to God, then they’ll die for your own political movement.’ So, that was an important factor in terms of creating this community on this island.”
While this gave Evans the core beliefs at play for the film’s religious cult, led by Michael Sheen’s Prophet Malcolm, Evans still needed to craft how both the film and cult would look. For this, Evans turned to the art world, specifically the paintings of Caravaggio, the 16th century Italian artist whose dramatic use of shadows and light made up a form of chiaroscuro known as tenebrism.
“I wanted to find something that would give me just the tone and the light, and the grit, and texture of it,” Evans said. “I would always gravitate towards Caravaggio’s paintings. It’s just something about how he replicated those intense shadows and that intense light, and created these works of art that kind of had a sense of dread about them. It was a real important part of being able to put my head and put the reader’s head into the world that we were trying to create, because it was such a specific design, and such a specific world, and a visual that could help convey that is a godsend.”
The balance between light and dark is evident throughout “Apostle,” not only in the use of light and shadow by the film’s cinematographer, Matt Flannery, but also in the film’s plot, as many of its most gruesome moments take place in broad daylight. Beyond this, there is also a stark contrast between the isolated existence of the religious cult — hardscrabble cottages, muddy streets, and pale, dried-out wheat fields — and the island’s most precious resource, a hidden goddess with whom Prophet Malcolm is in direct contact.
The goddess has been imprisoned in a barn hidden away from the village, her body woven into a lattice of weeds and branches that briefly spring to life and bloom with greenery and flowers when she receives sustenance. If mankind represents darkness, a life tainted by greed, failure, and original sin, then the goddess represents light, as both a literal and figurative life source. For Evans, she was a embodiment of Mother Nature, but one slowly being overtaken by the darkness of men.
“When Malcolm, Quinn, and Frank, they shipwreck and they land on this place,” Evans said. “What they’ve arrived at is this beautiful, perfect, ideal setting. It’s an ecosystem of works. When they first find [the goddess], she’s healthy. She feeds off the island, but she gives back to it. It’s like this cycle.
“These guys when they turned up and they arrive on this island, they find God. And, what do they do? Instead of revering her, they enslave her. They use her to create their own power. Now she’s decaying. Now she’s starting to become overrun by the nature that surrounds her, and that the nature that surround her is also decaying.
“We did this thing of that she might’ve been fed blood by Malcolm, and that muscle reflex … that sort of mechanism of her giving harvest back to blossoming of those leaves and the blossoming of the vines and the flowers. That’s happened, but it’s temporary because those leaves and those flowers decay immediately, once we are confronted with the vision of the violence that’s going on in this village, as well.”
The introduction of the goddess in “Apostle” might come as a surprise to some viewers, but it falls in line with one of Evans’ other major influences for the film, British folk horror. British folk horror is a sub-genre of films that draw on the continent’s pagan past and the mysteries surrounding sites like Stonehenge, building on the idea that tucked away in quaint British villages are secret cult members engaged in human sacrifices and other strange pagan rituals to appease the gods.
The ultimate British folk horror film is 1973’s “The Wicker Man,” where Sergeant Howie investigates the disappearance of a child on the strange Scottish Island of Summerisle, where he is at odds with the locals’ strange rites and free sexuality. “The Wicker Man” is often referred to as one of the Unholy Trinity in the sub-genre, alongside 1968’s “Witchfinder General” and 1971’s “The Blood on Satan’s Claw.” For Evans, these films were an obvious starting point and influence when he was crafting the world at play in “Apostle.”
“There was just something about the aesthetic in them that filled me with a sense of dread,” Evans said. “There was something about the way people would behave that was also ever so slightly off kilter, to a degree where it would make you feel unsettled from the very first minute of those films starting.”
For Evans, pulling together all of these elements made “Apostle” feel like a completely different experience than either of “The Raid” films. And to him, there was no better home for the film than with Netflix.
“I’ve never had an experience as kinda freeing as this,” Evans said. “[Netflix] could’ve said, ‘Can you just give us something that’s like ‘The Raid 3′ or something?’ This was an ambitious project… It was very challenging to experience, for me, and they got behind it on every step of the way, and they’ve been supportive of it.”
“Apostle” is currently streaming worldwide on Netflix.