Gareth Evans’s Apostle depicts the breakdown of a cult society as it reaches the savage endpoint of its religious tribalism. The film is set in 1905—though its characters seem to have just left the 15th century rather than the 19th—on a remote island where a group of settlers worships a real-life earth goddess. They’re led by Malcolm, a self-made prophet, played by Michael Sheen with a monk’s haircut and a pirate’s brogue. His island commune is stealthily infiltrated by the son of a wealthy Englishman, Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens), who’s there to find his sister, whom the cult has kidnapped for ransom, as their crops are failing and they need cash for food.
Apostle is strikingly moody, playing out in a richly textured, elementally rustic village bathed in natural light. Evans’s screenplay offers some alluring mystery, but the characters acting it out are all broad types: the worldly woman, the naïve boy, the raging despot, the pregnant teen, and so on. The filmmaker thrusts these clichés into an increasingly overwrought drama, as rival factions compete for control of the cult through murder, sacrifice, and medieval tortures involving a long drill that goes into the top of the skull.
The epic scale of the chaos is expected from Evans, whose co-directed contribution to the horror anthology V/H/S 2, “Safe Haven,” was about a visit to another cult, in Indonesia, that spirals out of control. Here, too, the mythologically scaled madness is grandly macabre, told through haunting images, such as the demented goddess hungrily drinking human blood while she lies prisoner in a room-sized, throne-like tangle of flowers and vines, which whither as she feeds. But the intensity of the cult’s collapse is scarcely affecting. The best horror movies make you feel the victims’ pain and fear because you recognize their humanity. This one just uses its victims as pawns in a super-gory bacchanal, which is aesthetically striking but emotionally dull.