'Apostle' Director Gareth Evans Transformed a Torture Device Into a Critique of Religious Brutality

In Apostle, the new Netflix horror movie from Gareth Evans (writer-director of The Raid and its sequel), nature is caged and tormented, as Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen) and his followers attempt to tame their rotting island utopia. The religious commune of Erisden is embodied, in miniature, by their signature torture device: "The Heathen's Stand."

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Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones), flanked by priests, prepares the Heathen’s Table in the Netflix movie “Apostle.” At more than two hours, “Apostle” is bountiful with foreboding imagery and lush violence. Netflix

"You don't spend too long reading up on those things, it's not healthy," Evans said of researching similar implements employed by witch hunters and inquisitors as they scoured Europe for heretics. But the Heathen's Stand isn't meant to mirror history; it's a cinematic symbol of the corruption infecting Erisden.

The Heathen's Stand is a table, assembled by the villagers from local implements and hammered together with wooden pegs. Atop its surface are vices for binding hands, feet and head. They're tightened until the skull is compacted and immobile. The victim is prepped; a drill bit aligned with the top of their skull.

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You don't want to be strapped to the Heathen's Stand. Netflix

"It had to make sense. It had to feel like the things they were using were products of life on that island," Evans said. "It had to feel rustic, realistic, like the tools they would have used to build this village were also going to be used to destroy its people."

In Apostle, this horrible device is turned against one of Erisden's most innocent characters, made to suffer for the sins of someone else. "As much as I admire Witchfinder General, what I'm watching is two strangers I haven't met before being tortured and hurt," Evans said, naming one inspiration for Apostle, a 1968 folk horror movie starring Vincent Price as a gleefully sadistic witch hunter. "When it came to Apostle, I really wanted that scene to really, really hurt; to hurt emotionally."

In Apostle, Malcolm's cult is simultaneously pagan and industrialized—blood sacrifice joined to machinery in an effort to weaponize religious superstition to keep the island's inhabitants in line. In this respect, Evans said Apostle was inspired in part by The Devils, a 1971 Ken Russell movie based on Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudun, a nonfiction chronicle of a 17th-century convent whose inhabitants believed they were infested with demons. The king and cardinal conspire to pin the possessions on a political thorn in their side, local priest Urbain Grandier (an incomparable performance by Oliver Reed to match the extraordinary Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne). Thanks to U.K. censorship, The Devils is rarely seen, but its brand is burnt into Apostle.

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Political persecution takes religious shape in "The Devils," as Father Grandier (Oliver Reed) is dragged to the stake. Warner Bros.

"I hadn't seen The Devils until about two months before we started writing Apostle," Evans said. "It would always play in documentaries about extreme cinema or documentaries about censorship in the U.K., because it had a very controversial history. But all of the clips would be from the more bawdy scenes, so I had never given it much thought. So when I actually watched it, I was blown away."

"There's this whole subtext to it," Evans said. "This idea of politics abusing religion to gain power."

The Heathen's Stand is at the heart of Apostle's similar critique, represents a society destroying itself, using spirituality as an excuse for political brutality. Maybe not everyone endorses the torture, maybe villagers keep their heads down to avoid being pulled on to the rack themselves, but it doesn't change the material fact that they built these mechanisms of industrialized barbarism together.

Apostle is streaming now on Netflix.