A Cult, a Kidnapping & Karma

Two new films on Netflix involve the supernatural, and both promise something new and original.

Apostle (2018) is a Netflix Original and clearly the bigger-budgeted, starring Dan Stevens (Matthew, Downton Abbey). However, I Remember You (Iceland’s  less-expensive ’17 entry) is the one that will linger in your mind.

Both movies have unusual, exotic settings (at least to Northeast Floridians’ eyes). Apostle takes place mostly on a remote island off the coast of 1905 England. It was actually filmed in Port Talbot, Wales, on a set that’s really rather convincing. Much activity in I Remember You centers on a remote island in Iceland, this time the real thing.

The writer/director of Apostle is Welsh-born Gareth Evans, who hit it really big, unexpectedly and internationally, with two Indonesian films—The Raid: Redemption (’11) and The Raid 2. Both were badass action movies with nonstop choreographed violence, outdoing even John Wick’s flicks, thrumming with energy and excitement.

Returning to his native Wales, Evans has made a period piece, more character-driven (at least in intent) and laced with brooding supernatural overtones. There’s graphic violence toward the end, and the visual energy and impressive set designs aren’t enough to disguise a provocative plot (in concept) but woefully threadbare, illogical and murky.

Dan Stevens plays opium-addicted, disillusioned ex-missionary Thomas Hamilton, trying to rescue his sister Elaine (Catrin Aaron), kidnapped and held for ransom at the island home of a bizarre cult who worship a vegetation goddess. If you know Robin Hardy’s superb 1973 occult thriller The Wicker Man, you’ll sniff a faint resemblance, at first. Before things get really screwy.

Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen), the cult’s leader, has problems, namely that the imprisoned Earth Goddess is ailing, her human blood intake insufficient to regenerate the commune’s ailing crops. His lovely daughter Andrea (Lucy Boynton) has taken a shine to Thomas, and the devotion and commitment of his two aides are fading fast.

The weirdness factor ramps up as Thomas plots to save Elaine, leaving Evans free to do what he does best—accentuate the action and gore. Several subplots and important minor characters bite the dust as time shifts and Thomas’ painful backstory clutter the two-hours-plus run time.

The always-reliable Sheen (a Welshman himself) looks like Anthony Hopkins’ kid bro, as he brings depth and conviction to his role as a misguided cult overlord. His character is the most balanced as far as credibility goes. Stevens certainly looks like a daring hero, but his performance is strictly one-note. Saddled with the Evans’ unconvincing script, the best Stevens can do is grimace and glower.

Despite impressive production values, Apostle ultimately squanders its possibilities, cowering in the shadow of the far superior and original version of The Wicker Man, (not the godawful Nic Cage remake).

I Remember You, by contrast, slowly and creepily grows on you. Two tragic tales that take place in separate time periods intermesh in the story of vengeance from beyond the grave. At first seemingly unconnected, the stories and characters merge in a truly haunting conclusion.

Psychiatrist Freyr (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) is enlisted by the police in a complicated case involving the unusual deaths of elderly people, each of whom has been linked to bullying a grade-school classmate decades past. All victims are similarly marked by numerous crosses branded on their backs.

Freyr grieves for his son, who disappeared a few years ago. The case is still an utter mystery.

Intercut with the mainland drama is an equally chilling series of events on a remote island. Three entrepreneurs (a married couple and a friend) hope to restore an abandoned house into a summer hostel.

How the two stories fit together over extended time-frames is implacably unfolded by director Óskar Thór Axelsson and co-writer Ottó Geir Borg in an intelligent, original horror film that employs dread and subtlety rather than violence and gore.

Chilling in many ways, I Remember You could make you stretch out your trembling hands to reach for the blankets and the lights.