Spain’s first stop-motion feature, “The Apostle,” mixes local folklore and time-honored horror into a distinctive, truly haunting whole. Fernando Cortizo’s compelling debut is let down slightly by a storyline that cleaves too closely to the expected, but it’s a small sacrifice for such wonderfully sinister characters and creepy atmospherics. Dark and troubling in the way that unexpurgated Grimm tales are, “The Apostle” may be unsuitable for the very young, but deserves exposure beyond the fest circuit, where its gospel is already spreading.
The voice artists include some top-flight Galician acting talent. Ramon (voiced by Carlos Blanco) and Xavier (Luis Tosar) escape from prison and come up right next to the jail fence. Uncertain about which side of it they’re on, Xavier climbs over, while Ramon heads off in search of some booty that Xavier has stashed in a rural pueblo along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.
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On finding the pueblo, which is inhabited by various aging grotesques, Ramon is welcomed by local cleric Don Cesareo (Xose Manuel Oliveira “Pico”), a slimy, unsettling creation with a huge nose that he uses to literally sniff around people; he looks uncannily like an older version of Murnau’s Nosferatu. Ramon unwisely accepts a drink of milk from crone Dorinda (Geraldine Chaplin) before collapsing.
When he recovers, Ramon encounters a strange, mist-enveloped procession walking through the village. After taking a crucifix from the Frankenstein lookalike at the head of the procession, he suddenly finds he has only three days to live, as stipulated by medieval legend.
A subplot featuring a corrupt, gluttonous Archbishop of Santiago (voiced by the late Paul Naschy, a key thesp in Spanish horror) adds an element of satire, while one mesmerizing standalone sequence fills in the backstory with images of Terry Gilliam-esque intensity, accompanied by bluesman Carlos Childe giving it his best Tom Waits growl.
There are no traditional heroes here: The sharp-witted Ramon is an agreeable enough fellow, but he still continues to pickpocket at every opportunity. Otherwise, characterizations are best described as nuanced stereotypes. On the dramatic side, the pic is rarely authentically suspenseful, since the plot is little more developed than a fairy tale.
The visual effects are dedicated exclusively to making the film’s little world credible. It all looks and feels like a labor of love, though the stop-motion is not quite as seamless as it is in, say, “Coraline” (some of the tech work has been done by crew members borrowed from that and other U.S. productions). Face and body work on the latex figures is well-observed, with some of them occasionally resembling the actors voicing them; the puppets were modeled after the thesps had recorded their lines, adding an extra layer of credibility.
Rarely has the atmosphere of a northern Spanish pueblo been so lovingly rendered as it is by lensers David Nardy and Matthew Philip Hazelrig here. Its richly textured wood and stone, and its haunting blend of mist and light, create a setting in which the age-old superstitions — black cats, ancient manuscripts and the like — can come convincingly to life.
Philip Glass gets a music credit (along with Arturo Vaquero and Xavier Font), supplying an effective, stripped-back choral score. The pic has been distributed in 2D only in Spain, but there is also a 3D version available for international territories.