Monday, December 31, 2018

Apostle – review

Director: Gareth Evans

Release date: 2018

Contains spoilers

This was a Netflix film that I had added to my viewing list, understanding it to be a folk horror film. I had in the back of my mind that it might be a little bit like the Wicker Man (1973). Little did I know that it is, at heart, a vampire film and the trope is so strong that no examination is needed to decide on that – Apostle is, in my opinion, a vampire film.

In being so it plays with the idea of native soil in a way that is really interesting and we shall be looking to that. It also plays around with the idea of a vampiric landscape – to some degree – and I will touch upon that too.

Dan Stevens as Thomas
The film is set in 1905 and a letter has been sent by Jennifer (Elen Rhys) to her father begging that he send a ransom to enable her freedom from a religious cult (it reads as though she was a cultist, but later we discover that she has actually been kidnapped from the mainline by the cult with the sole view to ransom). Her father is a broken man and so her estranged (from her father) vagrant looking brother Thomas (Dan Stevens, Vamps) is sent to rescue her. He is not to make himself known to the cult, or pass them the ransom, until he has seen her. As he travels by train to the port, from where he will embark to the cult’s island, we see that he is addicted to some form of drug that he administers by dropper.

As the viewer sees the quayside my first thought was of Lovecraft and Innsmouth – that is the sort of atmosphere that the set offered and probably a good analogy as the film does play with mounting dread that Lovecraft excelled in. The passengers are all told that no books may be taken to the island. As one passenger (John Weldon), empties books from his case, Thomas offers to help and uses the opportunity to swap his ticket (provided by the cult) for the man’s. Frank (Paul Higgins), the boat’s captain, takes the tickets as they board and seeing something on Thomas’ ticket marks the case of the passenger now in possession of it. Something noted by Thomas.

finding her
The cult itself was founded after convicts Malcolm (Michael Sheen, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, the Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1, the Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, Underworld & Underworld: Rise of the Lycan), Frank and Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones) had shipwrecked on the island. They had discovered a woman (Sharon Morgan) there who is referred to as a Goddess – I’ll come back to her. Malcolm has styled himself as a prophet, Frank runs the connection with the mainland (as we have seen) and Quinn seems to be more an enforcer. There is a full community now living with them.

Thomas immediately notices many strange things, such as the expectation of ritual bloodletting and a secret tunnel running from Malcolm’s home to somewhere on the island. We see that Thomas has burns on his back and later discover that he was a priest who was tortured and branded with a cross as he tried to bring Christianity to China during the Boxer rebellion – the incident killing his faith and the reason for the character name (he is Doubting Thomas). The island is becoming infertile – the crops dying, animals birthing stillborn or malformed offspring that soon die. This is why they have turned to kidnap, to get the funds to buy food, but they are also being infiltrated by establishment spies from the mainline with a view to ending the cult.

under the floor
I want to concentrate on the Goddess. On his second night Thomas breaks curfew and, when he returns to the lodgings that he and the other newcomers are in, he sees all the other doors have jars of blood outside ready for collection. He fills his jar by stealing blood from another jar (meanwhile we see a female figure behind him, who vanishes). He cuts his finger on a barb on his key and we see, after he retires, the spilt blood moving of its own volition across the floorboard and running down a crack where a face laps hungrily at the blood. The cultist bleed themselves nightly, it seems, and the blood is gathered is an offering to the Goddess.

in the channel of blood
The next night Thomas breaks into the secret passage but becomes trapped down there between Malcolm and Frank. His only way to avoid capture is to climb into a channel that seems to be filled with blood and offal. He is moving through the channel when a rodent is pulled below the surface and then she appears, moving rapidly towards him. He manages to escape, reaching a cave where cave paintings seem to explain the woman (the word Exodus is also chalked on the walls). Meanwhile Malcolm goes to the woman and we see that she is captured within vines and foliage, that have become part of her. A question around the channel of blood came to my mind. As we have seen her hungrily lap at a small amount of freshly spilt blood, why is it that there is a channel of blood apparently untouched? Does the blood need to be fresh, perhaps?

Malcolm feeds her
Malcolm admonishes her for appearing to Thomas, indicating perhaps that he has some sort of telepathic connection with her – as her ‘prophet’ – but also letting us know that, despite being trapped, she can appear on the island. This bilocation might have been illusionary if it weren’t for the feeding under the floorboards. Malcolm feeds her some of his blood and for a moment blossoms appear on the foliage though they quickly die. A humanoid creature, with a vine wrapping around his head, works in the barn, dealing with the meat and acting as her caretaker it seems – he is billed as the Grinder (Sebastian McCheyne).

capturing her
The health of the island is intimately tied into that of the Goddess. Quinn later reveals how they found her and he (having found the cave paintings) uses rabbit’s blood as he captures and ensnares her. Animal blood eventually failed to sustain her (and thus the island) and he plans to produce babies to sacrifice annually to her, convinced such blood will work. Yet she is also able to manipulate the land (we see guards impaled on high branches at one point) and this link between her and the land reminded me of the lore we often get of a vampire and the need for native earth – note I’m specifically thinking of that and not the variant of grave earth. In this the conflation is bought full circle – if the vampire is dependent on its native earth then the film imagines that as an interdependency where the earth is just as reliant on the vampire. It’s a symbiosis between the two.

blood and fire
What we don’t see, but do hear, is that the Goddess can manipulate the surrounding seas as well, protecting her ‘chosen’ but by chosen, are they meant to be a larder for consumption? There is always the possibility that the Goddess is a physical manifestation of the land itself. When she is freed (destroyed?) by immolation the fire spreads rapidly through the land and the community – it blows a chunk of cliff out in an explosion of fire and blood, which is suggestive of the channel of blood but also makes it look as though the entire cliff bleeds. As an aside I was reminded here of the turning process in Byzantium - the Celtic God (who took the form of the prospective vampire, so we never saw their true form) and the bleeding waterfall, to be honest there feels like there is a definite (if not intentional) crossover that could be exploited in a fanfic. Also remember that immolation does not necessarily destroy in nature, rather it clears deadwood and allows renewal.

the Goddess in the land
If the Goddess is a manifestation of the land itself then we have a vampiric landscape, a land that needs blood to blossom. We have seen examples of this before and my mind goes to All Girls Weekend but more so Jug Face, which had the vampiric landscape, the sacrifice and the religious cult element. If she is a manifestation of the land then maybe the channel of blood is more the land’s artery than a feeding sluice? The film certainly poses more questions than it answers but I really enjoyed the sense of dread and the atmosphere – even if things with the Grinder moved off folk horror and more into something around Silent Hill (thanks to Simon Bacon for that analogy).

meat for the grinder
Because of this move it seems to have put some viewers off, I’ve also seen some complaints because of its deliberately unanswered points. Yet I felt it a well-acted psychodrama and its long 130-minute running time flew by. This is one that will gain more fans as the years pass by, I suspect, but I am one already. For me this gets a strong 8 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

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