Directed by: Gareth Evans [A], David Bruckner [R], Steven Kostanski, Jeremy Gillespie [V] || Produced by: Aram Tertzakian, Ed Talfan, Gareth Evans [A], Jonathan Cavendish, Richard Holmes, Andy Serkis [R], Jonathan Bronfman, Casey Walker [V]
Screenplay by: Gareth Evans [A], Joe Barton [R], Steven Konstanski, Jeremy Gillespie [V] || Starring: Dan Stevens, Lucy Boynton, Mark Lewis Jones, Bill Milner, Kristine Froseth, Paul Higgins, Michael Sheen [A], Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton [R], Aaron Poole, Kenneth Welsh, Daniel Fathers, Kathleen Munroe, Ellen Wong, Evan Stern, Trish Rainone, Mik Byskov [V]
Music by: Fajar Yusekemal, Aria Prayogi [A], Ben Lovett [R], Blitz/Berlin, Joseph Murray, Menalon Music, Lodewijk Vos [V] || Cinematography: Matt Flannery [A], Andrew Shulkind [R], Samy Inayeh [V] || Edited by: Gareth Evans [A], Mark Towns [R], Cam McLauchlin [V] || Country: United Kingdom [A, R], Canada [V] || Language: English
Running Time: 129 minutes [A], 94 minutes [R], 90 minutes [V]
I take breaks, but I never quit the online blogosphere; there are too many movies to watch, discuss, and share, and blogging about them is just too much damned fun. Speaking of that fun, and to continue rambling about my recent introduction to online streaming subscriptions (… yep, you read that right), I’d like to discuss three similar, yet distinct quality horror films. Two of these are Netflix original productions, while the third a crowdfunded gem available on multiple streaming platforms.
First up is the feature horror debut of Gareth Evans, not to mention the writer-director’s first movie produced outside Indonesia and in his native United Kingdom in over a decade, Apostle. Evans made a name for himself popularizing the Indonesian martial art, Pencak Silat, in world cinema, effectively birthing the modern Indonesian action film with the success of his Raid (2011, 2014) series, and making an international action star out of the now genre-favorite, Iko Uwais. Though a “Raid 3” looks improbable at this point, Apostle is proof Evans has much to offer the filmmaking world beyond action cinema.
Apostle is a creepy, subgenre-blending period horror piece in the vein of The Witch (2015) and Penny Dreadful (2014-2016). Across its ambitious and not always well paced 129-minute running-time, the movie flirts with everything from supernatural fantasy to pagan ritualism to good ole-fashioned gore-porn, and most of it sticks. Evans’ comfort with extreme violence works well within the horror genre, and his framing of sadistic blood ‘n guts is intense yet restrained enough to never grow desensitizing. His creative use of violence, from brief shootouts to grisly hand-to-hand combat to squeamish torture devices hearkens to the best of his Indonesian filmography.
The diegesis of Apostle plays like a cross between the classic Wicker Man (1973) and the aforementioned Witch. Our inciting incident involves the off-screen kidnapping of a wealthy English socialite by a mysterious cult located on a remote island in the British Isles. The brother of this woman and our protagonist, Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey [2010-2012], The Guest ), journeys to this creepy island disguised as a convert, and from there creepier adventures ensue.
Evans’ longtime collaborators Matt Flannery (director of photography), Fajar Yusekemel, and Aria Prayogi (musical score) flesh out this period setting with unsettling music and even more unsettling dutch angles. Flannery uses several impressive motion-controlled tracking shots where his camera literally spirals about its axis toward unimaginable horrors, such as a boy’s skull being drilled apart in a twisted religious ritual, and a flashback sequence where Stevens is branded by members of the Boxer Rebellion. Altogether, Apostle is a creative horror piece most notable for its ambitious narrative and execution of various established horror tropes blended into a near seamless whole. My few complaints involve that aforementioned long running-time and a few pointless character details like Stevens’ opium addiction. Another than that, Apostle is a gory good ride.
Next up is another Netflix production by way of the United Kingdom, The Ritual, directed by David Bruckner, who, coincidence would have it, contributed to the 2012 anthology horror film, V/H/S, whose sequel, V/H/S 2 (2013, also an anthology), featured a piece by Gareth Evans. The Ritual is, on the surface, a more straightforward horror piece about getting lost in the woods and being stalked by a cryptic monster. It’s an oldie but a goodie, as far as horror scenarios go, though like numerous modern scary movies, it feels the need to force an unnecessary arc on its protagonist to ostensibly increase narrative tension. On the one hand, The Ritual doubles-down on old-school fears of being stalked in the wilderness by an unseen threat (a group of Englishmen hiking in remote northern Sweden), and once the principle threat (re: the monster) is revealed, it isn’t a total letdown. The buildup to The Ritual’s monster-reveal lives up to the hype, involving memorable nighttime cinematography, better editing, and great pacing.
On the other hand, like the worst of M. Night Shyamalan’s cliches and similar to countless other contemporary horror features, Brucker and screenwriter Joe Barton somehow conclude these immediate threats to their characters are not frightening enough; The Ritual hits you over the head with themes regarding the guilt, friendship, and insecurity of our main character (prolific English actor, Rafe Spall), to the point where the production designer invested significant resources in rebuilding sets from the movie’s prologue to emphasize “deep,” “emotional” character growth. This inexplicable trend where horror filmmakers force character development in the one genre that needs it the least baffles me to no end. When The Ritual sticks to the basics of its effective on-location photography, a clever monster-design, and the titular ceremony revealed in the film’s third act, it works just fine. The woods never stop being foreboding.
Last, but not least, we must discuss “the best John Carpenter movie not made by John Carpenter,” the 2016 crowdfunded Canadian feature, The Void. Lovers of Carpenter’s moody, dread-inducing, throwback style and Lovecraftian cosmic horror will find much to love in this shockingly high production-value feature (the supposed Indiegogo crowdfunded budget was around $82,000 — yes, thousand). In less than 90 minutes, The Void packs better creature violence and undead shootouts than most monster or zombie films, more effective tonal dread than any “slow-burn” horror film from Ti West, and more efficient world-building than anything from The Conjuring (2013-2020) “cinematic universe.” The film’s setup involves a team of enigmatic cultists trapping a few civilians and police officers in a dilapidated hospital, which also doubles as the cult’s chosen site for opening an inter-dimensional portal to the Cthulhu mythos — or something. Thereafter, the plot spirals into batshit insanity as our ensemble cast battle zombies, various Lovecraftian monsters, and more than a few cultists with everything from shotguns to fire extinguishers to fire axes. It’s a glorious hodge-podge of classical horror influences, blending more subgenres than either Apostle or Frank Darabont’s The Mist (2007).
Like The Ritual, the film’s only true weakness is its filmmaker’s unrelenting desire to shove needless character traits involving personal tragedy, insecurity, and self-esteem into a story that has little use for them. I’ve stated in previous reviews that the horror genre is the least dependent on multi-layered characters or relatable character arcs for it to function. Fear is a primal instinct, horror a subconscious reaction, and as such we don’t need the (ahem… ) gory details of our heroes’ personal laundry to relate to them. You don’t need to know my deepest, darkest social anxieties to shit your pants when a monster chases me down a dark hallway. Understand?
With all that said, these three auteur horror films make for a wildly entertaining triple-feature if you’re in the mood for a scary movie-night. Their somewhat foreboding yet unimaginative titles are deceptive marketing for three creative settings, impressive set-designs, memorable location-photography, and inventive camerawork. Though I have some reservations with Gareth Evans’ long-winded feature-length editing and can’t wrap my head around The Void and The Ritual’s verbose, obtuse character development, all three are quality scary films available at an Internet connection near you.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Apostle is great if you’re in the mood for period horror a la The Witch, The Ritual if you’re scared of the woods and/or camping a la The Blair Witch Project (1999), and The Void if you like your scares of the cosmic sort a la John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy (1982, 1987, 1995). All will more than do if you’re simply a fan of good horror, as they treat their diegetic world-building rules with respect, ensuring you’re never confused of what you should be afraid.
— However… Gareth Evans may never make a movie under two hours again. I don’t care if a victim being chased by a monster, serial killer, or zombie feels guilty about unresolved personal relationships back home. You shouldn’t, either.
–> All RECOMMENDED, nonetheless.
? I’d scream at a monster if it was too pussy to fight outside its home turf. You stay behind that treeline, bitch.