With genuine scares and suspense, Netflix’s ‘Apostle’ is the perfect Halloween movie article by Matt Martella

Much has been said about the jump-scare phenomenon plaguing horror movies today, but people rarely consider the root of the problem. This tactic is a substitute for real tension and dread, and the fear that comes from one of these moments resides more with an audience member’s concern for their own eardrums than for the characters in danger on-screen. It is a way for incompetent filmmakers to have their audience engage with the film when their characters and plot are too weak to do so. This is where Gareth Evans’ “Apostle” breaks the mold, making Netflix’s newest horror film a must-see this Halloween season.

At its core, “Apostle” is about a rescue mission. Dan Stevens stars as Thomas Richardson, a bitter, forsaken heroin-addict tasked with travelling to a Welsh island to save his sister from a cult who has kidnapped her to receive ransom money from their wealthy father. Of course, the mission is not as simple as it sounds. Through Richardson’s eyes we see his opponents, who at first seem nothing more than an innocent community of honest, God-fearing folk, reveal themselves to be a foul stew of greed, corruption and twisted morals.

‘Apostle’ brings class and nuance to a contemporary horror genre void of creativity

Stevens is the film’s biggest asset. One of the most underrated actors working in movies today, Stevens completely embodies Richardson, and I found myself invested in his mission because his character is so empathetic. We get to discover this cult along with Richardson, making him even more relatable because I often found that my emotions of fear, disgust and occasional triumph mimicked his in the moment. Overall, Evans chose the right point of view for his audience, and Richardson’s character revelations make him just as fascinating and mysterious as the setting he finds himself trapped in.

Evans puts a concentrated effort into establishing characters and character relationships on the island. Everything feels believable, so when things take a turn for the strange and chaotic, it is all the more enticing for the viewer. The fairly basic plot is given increased depth with all the character conflicts, multilayered motivations and reveals that occur throughout the film. For one, the cult leader and main antagonist, Prophet Malcolm (Martin Sheen), must battle obstacles of his own, relating to his personal life and to the monumental responsibilities of running the village. Although his character is engaging, and he certainly eclipses the usual “crazy false-prophet” cliché seen in all sorts of entertainment, the movie sets-up a bond between him and Richardson that never fleshes itself out or contributes to the plot in any meaningful way.

Another sub-plot between a teenage boy and girl living on the island is introduced in the first-act, completely disappears in the second and then only becomes center-stage during the climax of the film. While I was watching, I hardly noticed that this plot-line vanished halfway through the movie (mostly because I was so captivated with Richardson’s investigation of the island), but when it came back, I had genuinely forgotten it had existed at all. This complaint is a minor one, but the movie could have benefited from an extra 10 minutes to give these secondary characters more screen time.

In addition to writing the script, Evans also directed the film. Previously known and exalted for his ultra-violent “The Raid” films, Evans flaunts his versatility as a director in “Apostle,” taking a step back from the slick, fast-paced style of the aforementioned martial arts movies for a brooding, atmospheric horror film. There are traces of Evans’ flare for brutal, stylized fight-scenes in “Apostle,” but he restrained himself from breaking the grounded tone of the film. His ability to direct consecutive scenes (especially those devoted to nothing but plotting) while maintaining a firm underlying layer of suspense is truly an accomplishment worth mentioning.

It is not only Evans’ talent behind the camera that makes “Apostle” so suspenseful and eerily believable. The artists and crew who created this beautiful and grotesque, conceivable and fantastical setting deserve just as much praise as the director. Every location is loaded with subtle world building, and the way horrific and mundane elements merge together in the scenery had my eyes glued to the screen while I waited with clenched fists for something terrible to happen. From lively festivals to dark corridors, love and expert craftsmanship is evident in every inch of “Apostle’s” background, and the film would not be as memorable as it is without this fastidious attention to detail.

Atmosphere and empathy create real dread, not jump-scares.

Finally, it is necessary to mention that “Apostle” is not for the faint of heart. There are moments of unbridled gore that made my stomach churn (something that rarely happens to me), but the real horror comes in some of the most graphic and extreme scenes of torture I have ever watched. It is difficult to say whether the visual representation of torture is what made these scenes so gruesome, or if it was my concern for whichever character was in danger, but they were eye-averting nonetheless.

Overall, “Apostle” is a movie worth seeing if you are in the mood for a genuinely disturbing, pulse-pounding experience. Despite its ghastly nature, I do believe that anyone who watches will finish the movie satisfied with what they saw. It is definitely worth watching this Halloween season and is by far my number-one recommendation for a contemporary horror film.

Matt Martella can be reached at mmartella@umass.edu.

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