Warning: Spoilers abound!
Apostle follows Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) on the hunt for his sister, Jennifer (Elen Rhys). He is told that she has joined a religious community living on a remote Welsh island. The community practice a form of goddess worship, led by the self-declared prophet Malcolm Howe (Michael Sheen). Thomas, a former preacher who lost his faith during the Boxer Rebellion, discovers that the island’s goddess is a very real entity who must be fed blood. Over the years of the community’s existence, the blood offerings given by animals and the members of the community themselves (including whole ground up corpses) are not sufficient to sustain her, and the island’s ecosystem is dying as a result.
Apostle’s most obvious influence is The Wicker Man. An island community practicing a form of nature-worship, an outsider arrives to find a missing person, dying agriculture, and so on. This film also exists in the shadow of 2015’s seminal film The VVitch. Not so much from a narrative perspective, but rather in terms of special attention being given to period language, and an aesthetic sensibility—washed out colours and a dominating landscape, though in Apostle’s case the landscape dominates in its openness, its desolation, rather than in the towering forest of The VVitch.
All of these are folk horror films. Folk horror is a nebulous term, a retroactive generic formulation applied to a particular current of filmmaking from the late-60s going into the early-to-mid-70s (Witchfinder-General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw form the so-called ‘folk horror-chain’ along with The Wicker Man). In the last few years, it has experienced a revival. The VVitch, A Field in England, and Kill List are all recent contributions to this strange subgenre. Apostle is certainly part of that moment.
Before we continue, it’d be fruitful to pause and consider what this film is not.
Apostle has been described as ‘Lovecraftian’. It isn’t.
‘Lovecraftian’ is an over-used and much abused term. For a text to be truly Lovecraftian, it requires more than cults and monsters and strange religious practices—it requires existential dread. And that is ‘existential’ in the precise sense. Properly existential dread—Angst—is a sense of the contingency of one’s being, that one’s being is not necessary. Lovecraftian horror produces this by placing us in a universe not cruel, but indifferent. Lovecraftian stories will also almost-always feature an antagonistic force (rarely an individual) so utterly alien that the protagonist is made to realise how insignificant they and all of us are. Cthulhu doesn’t hate you, you just don’t matter to it.
Apostle does not meet that criteria, and that is not a criticism. (To be clear, it is a very good film.) It has cults and monsters and strange religious practices, but it is not a meditation on existential dread. If anything, it is, ultimately, a celebration of the human potential for goodness—even saintliness—contrasted with the human potential for the monstrous.
As for folk horror, which we need not spend too much time defining, a recurrent theme is the interaction between Christianity and nature-centred spirituality.
The Wicker Man depicts a reconstructed Celtic paganism, featuring sexual permissiveness, a belief in reincarnation, and a devotion both to nature and its totemic representations. The villagers in The Wicker Man are vital and joyful—in contrast, Edward Woodward’s Sergeant Howie represents a cold and harsh Christian ethos of self-denial. All in all, the villagers are more fun than Howie, a penchant for burnt human offerings aside.
The VVitch instead focuses on that cold and harsh Christianity. The religion of the Puritan family the film follows is one where God is a tyrant whose favour must be begged. Sin is a more real presence than grace, and all worldly things are rendered corrupt by it. As such, the witch’s Miltonian response is perfectly reasonable. If God is so cruel, then the corrupt world is surely favourable to His ‘mercy’. The witch says ‘Then let us be corrupt. Let us withdraw from church and town. Let us dwell in the woods. Let us prey on those who pray. Let us taste butter and live deliciously.’
The Wicker Man and The VVitch both affirm, to varying degrees, unchristianity, and instead retreat into the world of the organic and shadowy.
Instead of focusing on conflicts between two distinct spiritualities or religions, the film deals more with the notion of sacrifice and, going further than that, the notion of eucharist. The eucharist is the core rite in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, meaning literally ‘thanksgiving’. Thankfulness for Christ’s sacrifice is offered as this sacrifice, according to the doctrine of transubstantiation, is literally made again by the sharing of the consecrated bread and wine. The eucharist is a thankful receiving of Christ’s gift of Himself.
The Christian belief is that, by partaking in this gift, a truer life than the mortal one is bestowed upon us. The bread and wine become, literally, flesh and blood given as supernatural nourishment. Apostle treats flesh and blood similarly. The goddess can only survive when she is fed blood; the cultists bleed themselves for her; we’re told that Malcolm attempted to feed her from himself. Curiously, the goddess attempts to resist the offerings that are given to her unwillingly—the pulped corpses of the murdered.
The core tension of the film is not between paganism and Christianity, but rather between eucharistic self-offering (and Malcolm’s willingness to give of himself indicates that this is not exclusive to Christianity) and mechanistic consumption. The true antagonist, Malcolm’s brother Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones), tells us that he was the one that thought to imprison the goddess. He calls her a machine; the food he gives her is simply fuel and the life of the island is just a product of the machine’s operations. This attitude, the mechanistic attitude that nature is just a resource to be plundered (the attitude Heidegger identified as the true metaphysical underpinning of techno-capitalism) is contrasted with the eucharistic attitude. Food and nature are more than fuel and resource—when approached reverently, they’re a self-offering of themselves. They are gifts.
Thomas, in the films conclusions, rediscovers his faith in the act of total self-giving. He sacrifices himself so that his sister and Malcolm’s daughter Andrea (Lucy Bolton) can escape the dying island. Yet, when Thomas lies down upon the grass, it moves over and consumes him. He takes on the same expression as the now-dead goddess. Christ-like, he has made himself into food indeed.
About the Author
Sean Oscar co-hosts the hauntology podcast WYRD_SIGNAL, @wyrdsignalpod. He lives in Brighton, and blogs at New Old Dream, seanoscar.wordpress.com. He tweets @hauntonaut
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, Texas. He’s the author of Coyote Songs and Zero Saints. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias