THE STORY – A man travels to a remote island to search for his missing sister after she is kidnapped by a murderous religious cult.
THE CAST – Dan Stevens, Lucy Boynton, Mark Lewis Jones, Bill Milner, Kristine Froseth, Paul Higgins & Michael Sheen
THE TEAM – Gareth Evans (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 129 Minutes
By Josh Parham
With Halloween quickly approaching, this is always the perfect time to catch up some engaging horror films. Admittedly, I can run hot or cold on the genre, but I’ve always been able to appreciate the skill and artistry that can go into them. Even on a base level, there’s an indulgence to horror films that is satisfying on a visceral level. Still, there are films that exist within the genre that attempt to bring a touch of class. These are generally highlighted by the production value and performances. Those elements are certainly brought here, and while the results are not always successful, they are interesting throughout much of its runtime.
The film takes place in 1905, and an isolated cult run by Prophet Malcolm Howe (Michael Sheen) has sent a ransom letter to a young woman’s family demanding money in return for her safe release. Her brother, Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) takes it upon himself to travel to the island undercover. He plans to investigate the whereabouts of the cult’s activities and hopefully find his missing sister. This, of course, leads him through a series of events which uncover a dark secret this secluded society is hiding, and as he descends further down the trail, the more horrors are revealed to him.
Director Gareth Evans is certainly a flamboyant director, as his work on “The Raid” films expertly showcases. Those films offer incredibly grandiose action set pieces that are exceptionally executed for sure, but they also mask a story that’s not built on a strong foundation. This time, one can feel Evans trying to flex a different muscle. The extended fight choreography has been replaced by a moody atmosphere looking to unnerve an audience with its stylish filmmaking. The results absolutely deliver, and Evans creates an effectively creepy setting that feels authentic and tactile. It also helps that the technical design of the film is impeccable, with special accommodation to Matt Flannery’s cinematography for perfectly capturing the beauty of the landscape along with the horror of every dimly lit setting.
However, Evans can’t escape his other flaw when it comes to his films. “The Raid” films suffered from plots that felt either too simplified or too complicated, and I do at least want to commend Evans for striking an appropriate balance for the most part here. Most of the time it simply provides support for the visuals and performances and does a good enough job. Still, there are quite a few contrivances that stretch credulity even in this film. The plot conveniences and “deus ex machinas” soon begin to pile up, and it really does start to take away some of the enjoyment. By the end, the film is starting to fly off the handle, and it’s a test as to whether or not you can go along with it. Overall, I did but had the story and character motivations felt more natural, that ride would have been enjoyed even more.
The collection of actors assembled here certainly do their best, and most do deliver. Stevens has been an actor I’ve admired for some time, and he finds a nice character to inhabit. There’s a hardened exterior that masks a tragic past, and he reveals it quite well as the film goes on. It’s not anything master class, but it is a solid performance that keeps you engaged as a protagonist. Sheen’s warmth works well with a sinister undercurrent, though admittedly we’ve seen him better in other films. There is a villain who truly reveals himself toward the end of the film played by Mark Lewis Jones, and it is a big performance but it plays right into the tone the film strikes in the climax.
I would be hesitant to give a blanket recommendation to anyone regarding this film. The tone is certainly one that does not shy away from graphic violence and despicable characters. Even within that, the film’s story doesn’t have a lot of strength to it, and I can imagine some may believe the horrors on display are not justified by the material. However, there is definitely a sense of engagement with the material if you are so inclined, and its exceptional filmmaking and good performances do a lot to draw you into a nicely crafted horror tale. If that is something you’re interested in, the film has enough to devour and enjoy.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Exceptional crafts, solid performances, and a stylish and engaging tone.
THE BAD – Script is filled with plot contrivances. The third act goes off the rails.