THE WICKER DAN
Director: Gareth Evans
Screenplay: Gareth Evans
Review: David Stephens
Despite the wishes of studios and fans, the career paths of most filmmakers never take a predictable route. Take Peter Jackson for instance. Who would have thought that the director of the glorious gory delights of “Bad Taste” and “Braindead”, would go on to make a big-budget remake of “King Kong” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy? It’s the same with Gareth Evans, whose debut was the Indie horror “Footsteps”, which premiered at the Swansea Bay Film Festival in Wales during 2006. He then went on to helm arguably two of the best International action films to hit global screens this decade - we’re talking about “The Raid” and “The Raid 2” there. But he also strayed back to the genre after making one of the segments in “V/H/S/ 2”. He has been linked (or maybe not after recent updates) to another DC Superhero project (“Deathstroke”), and has an intriguing production coming up called “Blister”. But in the meantime Evans has made a surprise return to horror with this Netflix Original film, which has been eagerly awaited since the arrival of a particularly intense and dark trailer. It stars Dan Stevens, who has left his “Downton Abbey” days far behind him, after brilliantly edgy performances in the likes of “Legion” and “The Guest”. The (literally) cult film is streaming on Netflix from the 12th October onwards, so YGROR takes a look to see if it’s worth worshipping or not…
It’s 1905 and a wealthy industrialist has received a ransom note concerning his kidnapped daughter. The elderly and sick man is in no condition to deal with the situation, so his estranged son Thomas Richardson (Stevens) is sent to a remote island called Erisden to look for her. He’s under strict instructions not to pay the culprits until he has proof that she’s still alive. Through chicanery and good luck, he manages to adopt the persona of a fervent worshipper from the cult that lives on Erisden. As he enters the community under a false identity, he starts to search for his missing sibling. The cult itself is led by the Prophet Malcolm (the always great Michael Sheen), a man who fled the mainland under the charge of treason to the King and claiming to be inspired by a mysterious Goddess. He teaches the gospel from an alternate bible, and enforces strict rules for all who wish to live in the main village. It doesn’t take long for Thomas to discover some strange rituals and a sinister dark underbelly that exists in this isolated populace.
As far as tone and content goes, “Apostle” sits somewhere between the realistic pagan-horror of the “The Wicker Man”, and the slow-burn weird surrealism of an H.P. Lovecraft “Cthulhu Mythos” story. You could maybe add a small dash of “The VVitch” and “Witchfinder General” to that as well. Despite all those influences, the fact that it holds together as such a watchable horror tale is a testament to Evans (who also wrote the story) and the top-notch cast. Although best known for his contributions to action cinema (some of which is obvious in a couple of fleeting-but-well-choreographed fight scenes), the director has managed to bring a mature genre movie to the streaming channel, which isn’t afraid to incorporate some thoughtful themes and embrace a mythology outside of the norm. And also drills someone’s brains out.
It’s very much a slow-burn movie, and it takes time to shape the narrative over the 2hr10min running time. During that, the plot manages to throw a couple of real curve-balls at the viewers. The nature of the “religion” is delivered in a take-it-or-leave-it manner which is oddly refreshing, and doesn’t need to explain everything. Although there are several candidates for the role of the “Big Bad”, the real “villain” is hiding in plain sight and their emergence is something of a surprise. Even if several elements were shorn from the story, it still works as an effective period drama. But the film presents some deliciously tense moments, such as Malcolm’s attempts to discover who the “Intruder” in his community is, or the breathless pursuit down a watery tunnel. The addition of more overtly genre subjects create some memorable scenes where “something” slurps at spilled blood beneath a floorboard, along with the sudden appearances of a wizened figure. And then there are the blood-spattering sequences, which sometimes seem like they’ve come from “Saw 1905 – The Beginning”. Bar a couple of disappointingly shoddy effects, there’s some grim stiff on display, although not as much as suggested in the trailer and this certainly isn’t a gore-fest (well, perhaps towards at the end). Full marks for some evocative imagery as well, such as the “crucifixes” turning out to be masts on a ship, and the poor sap being dragged to his doom via an overhead shot in a wheat field.
Stevens, who’s fast becoming a MVP in many productions, brings his trademark furrowed-brow and baleful gaze to the proceedings. A taciturn character who speaks little, he nevertheless portrays a man with many layers and does contribute some powerful moments with some erudite monologues. Sheen is (of course) extremely watchable as always, as are the rest of the cast and there’s not a duff performance to be seen. What is surprisingly impressive is the way that major themes are woven into the story, and it’s not in a heavy-handed deliverance like “mother!”. The nature of faith (be it genuine or misguided) is brought into the mix, as is the idea of redemption and the temptation of power. However the subtle-ish motif of man’s delicate relationship with nature is the most obvious one. None of that is at expense of the plot though, which still stands alone as an offbeat and weird horror. It leads into a number of climactic sequences and one final scene that is chilling but oddly satisfying, and leaves some questions tantalizingly unanswered… but not in a crappy way.
If you’re looking for the negatives here, the frequent flashbacks sometimes jar and halt the flow of a scene, even if they’re mostly necessary. Some people might find the film different to expectations, once a midway revelation is made and the ultra-violence kicks in. But for most people, especially those looking for some unorthodox and original Netflix chills ahead of Halloween, this will do the job very nicely indeed. Hopefully, whatever is ahead for Evans, this won’t be the last excursion into pure horror for the filmmaker and we can look forward to some more scares. Put your faith in him.