Apostle (2018)

apostle2Welsh director Gareth Evans, famous for his action double-whammy The Raid and The Raid 2, returns with an absolutely batshit-crazy horror/torture-porn oddity that is likely destined for some kind of cult status someday. It is totally off the rails, nonsensical and baffling and frustrating and brilliant in perhaps equal measure. At over two hours its about thirty minutes too long and its script needs a few rewrites and perhaps a few sub-plots taking out, but its a fascinating film to watch simply because it just defies convention, as if Evans was trying to test how much free-reign and control Netflix was willing to give him. Turns out he was given pretty much complete freedom, which likely works against the film in the long run but does make it something of a curio and hypnotic experience. You just don’t know where its going next.

Disorientation is the heart of the film: Dan Stevens, having left Downton Abbey well behind him now, plays main protagonist Thomas Richardson, a twisted and troubled man who in some abrupt and deliberately (?) vague flashbacks is set on some vague mission to save his kidnapped sister from a vaguely-defined religious cult based on a vague remote island off the undefined mainland. Yes, it is all very vague: Thomas is the kind of unreliable fulcrum that H P Lovecraft sometimes used,  whose narrators were possibly as crazy and untrustworthy as the cultists they bumped into. Thomas is twitchy and haunted and reliant on drugs and stares balefully from under his tightly-knitted brow and grimaces bearing rotting uneven teeth. Something about Steven’s performance kept bugging me until I realised that he was channeling actor Sam Neil, as if deliberately mimicking Neil’s mannerisms in films like In the Mouth of Madness and Jurassic Park etc.  Its a role that perhaps might have actually suited Nic Cage although that might have proved to be unwatchable for me. Eventually we learn why Thomas seems so fucked-up but its perhaps one revelation too many at that point.

The island of Erisden holds a religious community run by cult-leader/prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen) and it all seems very Wicker Man with a medieval twist, but there are visual hints dropped in that suggest something genuinely supernatural is going on in the background, a deeper threat/horror than the cult itself. Again, perhaps in a further nod to Lovecraft fiction, layers and layers of mystery are revealed as the film progresses, so much so that it reminded me of the Call of Cthulhu RPG that I used to play many years ago. Ultimately there are perhaps just too many layers, too many revelations and twists and turns for the film to really manage successfully. I had the feeling that it could have been two completely seperate films but that Evans just threw it all into the crazy mix to see what came out.

apostle3I understand the film is set in 1905, but I don’t believe it states this implicitly onscreen (although I may have simply missed it) and while it is obviously a period film it does seem to have a dreamlike quality, particularly on the island which is genuinely like some medieval setting with torture devices straight out of some dungeon of horror/Roger Corman Poe flick starring Vincent Price. Strange camera angles occasionally add to the weirdness as do sudden outbreaks of violence- as might be suggested by the director’s previous films, Apostle is very graphic and violent in places and there is plenty of gore to satisfy horror-fans. Thomas has to swim in a subterranean river of blood at one point so that will give some indication of its crazy excesses.

The weird thing is, how I’m writing this possibly suggests its a much better film than it really is. This film is in no way wholly successful. As I’ve noted, its too long and really quite disjointed with perhaps too many characters and sub-plots. That being said, I do think it may be destined for cult status as such odd/flawed films often can be and it might actually reward with successive viewings.

So anyway, a very interesting experience and another indication that Netflix Originals can be very worthwhile. I’m not sure how this film might have fared as a cinema release, but dropping onto a streaming service to watch at home during a wet and windy Autumn night its pretty much perfect. I’m just a little frustrated that a disc release might have benefited from a commentary track which explained some of the film-making decisions. I don’t know if Netflix could manage seperate audio streams or provide seperate versions of content with audio-commentary tracks; likely there is insufficient demand for that kind of content but it something that I will certainly miss with the future veering away from physical releases.

The Guest (2014)

guest12016.88: The Guest (FIlmFour HD)

Dan Stevens’ transformation from Downton Abbey’s noble commoner Matthew Crawley to maniac American killer David Collins is something of a disorientating revelation. To be honest the disorientation was partly down to me not knowing what to expect from what I thought would be a serious thriller. I admit I must be some sort of idiot- I hadn’t seen any hint of it being a dark comedy, coming into the film ‘blind’. From the start there was something distinctly ‘off’ by the tone of the film and its performances and it took a good half-hour for me to realise what was actually going on: I was actually missing the joke. The Guest isn’t the serious thriller I expected it to be- instead it is a dark comic homage to slasher genre films of the 1980s, films like Halloween and Friday the 13th with plenty of First Blood thrown into the mix.

Grieving family the Petersons are visited by all-American, gentle-spoken David Collins, freshly discharged from the Army and visiting the family to give them parting messages from their deceased son who he had served with in combat.Invited to stay with them for a few days he becomes part of the family- for grieving mother Laura, he’s almost a surrogate son, helping out with chores etc, but it eventually begins to unfold that he’s helping out in other, less wholesome ways. The workplace rival of husband Spencer is suddenly found dead by police, easing the path of Spencer’s promotion. Youngster Luke who is bullied at school has his bullies taken care of and given some practical advice re:standing up for himself (and once he does so, his ensuing school suspension is quickly rescinded once Collins visits the Principal). The dead-end junkie holding back daughter Anna from getting on with her life suddenly winds up in jail on a murder charge.

As the number of deaths and violent events ramp up in the otherwise quiet and unremarkable town, it becomes clear that the kindly Collins is more than he appears. He’s actually a mix of Rambo/Michael Myers, a cold killer trained by the military as some kind of psychopathic weapon, a time-bomb on the run from the authorities just waiting to go off. When he finally does go totally berserk, no-one is safe, not even the Petersons, and even the military task-force sent in to stop him might not be enough.

Had this film been made in 1986, it would have been huge. It feels like it was made to be played/watched on a VHS tape. Part of this is the cinematography and a reliance on 1980s-sounding music on the soundtrack (which sounds also very much in the style of the soundtrack of Drive). Its smart and witty and dark and funny, and all its nods to First Blood and Halloween and The Terminator are all part of the delicious fun. The only problem is that it also feels like a film out of its time. It isn’t completely convincing, but maybe that’s just because it feels so less than a film of 2014 and more one from 1986.

No small part of the success of the film though is the performance of Dan Stevens, which is frankly astonishing. He looks and sounds like an homegrown, all-American hero, but behind his charm there is evidently something ‘off’ about him. There are early moments when his smile is revealed to be a mask, with a cold Terminator-like expression underneath it. On initial viewing, they felt awkward and forced but in hindsight, its all part of that 1980’s video-nasty conceit that runs slyly through the film. Its a trickier, and more impressive, performance than it initially looks and deserves some high praise- the film wouldn’t work as well as it does without Stevens in the role and its really light-years from Downton Abbey. I dread to think what the old dears giving this film a rental on the strength of Stevens name on the credits would think of it.

This film really is the kind of film that thoroughly deserves the term ‘cult’ and I’m sure will gather quite a following over the years and re-viewings. Indeed, my own partial misgivings are likely down to not getting the film I originally expected, so will likely be changed when I re-watch it knowing what it really is.

I wonder if a sequel is in the works. There deserves to be, if only to reinforce the conceit of all those serial-killer franchises that seemed to run forever.