Light years from the well-appointed parlors and sitting rooms of Downton Abbey, Dan Stevens downshifts from the upper-crust Crowley clan to play Thomas Richardson – a haunted former missionary who infiltrates a pagan cult on a remote island to find his kidnapped sister in the new horror-thriller Apostle. Directed by Gareth Evans, the bravura Welsh action stylist behind the crunchy and kinetically ultraviolent Raid films, this new Netflix original feels like a mash-up of 2015’s arthouse chiller The Witch and 1973’s original The Wicker Man, without being as engagingly creepy as either one of those movies.
Set in 1904, the story is set off on its not-so-merry way as Thomas’ estranged sister is being held for ransom by the cult’s wild-eyed prophet leader (Michael Sheen), a messianic firebrand who’s made some sort of supernatural bargain with the island’s crone goddess who requires the occasional blood sacrifice. Evans seems to know that his story is a bit flimsy, so he lards on periodic jolts of gore and Mark of the Devil-style torture sequences. And, perhaps not surprisingly, those brief moments give the film a taboo energy that the threadbare plot lacks.
Stevens is to be applauded for keeping his PBS tote-bag fanbase guessing after his star-making turn in Downton and his box-office success in Beauty and the Beast. But his Apostle character feels like a collection of exaggerated nervous tics and over-the-top existential anguish without enough actual there there. And Sheen manages to add layers of fiendish Christopher Lee complexity to what could have been a cartoon preacher villain. Still, Netflix feels like proper home for a film this idiosyncratic. After all, you’ll know within 30 minutes stumbling onto it whether you want to keep following its unsettling descent into blood-soaked madness or pick up your remote and head over to the relatively sunnier and safer comforts of Broadchurch. B-