Directed by: Ti West.
Written by: Ti West.
Starring: Joe Swanberg (Jake), AJ Bowen (Sam), Kentucker Audley (Patrick), Gene Jones (Father), Amy Seimetz (Caroline), Kate Lyn Sheil (Sarah), Talia Dobbins (Savannah).
The found footage horror genre is overplayed at this point. Too many filmmakers pretty much do the same thing as all the other filmmakers who have come before them. But Ti West’s The Sacrament is that rare found footage film that actually works – that tries to do something a little different. West is the talented director behind such recent horror films like The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers – both of which were genuinely scary and unsettling – neither relied on blood or gore or torture, but instead slowly, subtly built the horror of the situation up. The Sacrament is a little bit different – not quite as scary, but perhaps more deeply unsettling. Some have said that perhaps West shouldn’t have made the film – it is based on a real life horror story – The Jonesboro massacre, where charismatic cult leader Jim Jones convinced hundreds of his followers to kill themselves. Is The Sacrament exploiting those poor people and their deaths? I don’t think so – not any more than any other fact based crime movies do anyway – and West doesn’t use the real names, and updates the time period. The film isn’t scary, but it is deeply upsetting and disturbing. I can’t quite get it out of my head – as much as I may want to.
The movie is about Patrick (Kentucker Audley) who works for a news organization called Vice – who gets a letter from his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) – a junkie – who has says she is now clean, and living in a paradise with a group of people led by “father”. She invites Patrick to come and see her. He decides, without telling her, to bring along two other people from Vice – reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg). They are never told exactly where they are going – and when they get there, things aren’t quite what the expected. They are greeted by men with machine guns, who don’t want to let them in at first. When they finally do get in and meet Caroline, she surprisingly does seem completely sober – at least from drugs. She is under the influence of Father however – and so too does everyone else. It’s clear to the three men that they’ve stumbled into a cult. They don’t quite know how deep everything goes.
The three men from Vice give the movie it’s framing device, and the footage that we see. Unlike many found footage movies, the fact that they film everything – even as things go from strange to horrific – because after all, that is what they came down to document. The three of them aren’t very interesting as characters though, but they aren’t really there for that anyway. They're our audience surrogates, needed to introduce into the world.
The best performance in the movie is by Gene Jones as Father. Jones, who is best known (at least to me) for his terrific, one scene performance as a terrified gas station attendant in the Coen brothers No Country for Old Men, is truly creepy as Father. Charming, self-effacing, funny, but also paranoid and somewhat oft-kilter. You believe he could get people to follow him, even right to their tragic ends. A highlight in the movie is the interview he gives the outsiders where things get dark, yet the followers just cheer him on. The film also features another terrific performance by Amy Seimetz – amazing in last year’s Upstream Color – as Caroline, a woman who has simply traded one addiction for another (and even, perhaps not completely).
As in those previous two films, West spends a good hour setting the atmosphere, and slowly building the tension. As the reports dig deeper, and talk to more people, things get slowly more intense. By the time the film reached the inevitable conclusion, I was on the edge of my seat. West doesn’t hold back in these scenes – and does perhaps push things a touch too far at points (I really didn’t see mothers give their babies the Kool-Aid) – but he doesn’t pull punches. The material is dark, and he isn’t afraid to get dark along with it.
The Sacrament is my favorite type of horror movie – one that doesn’t rely on cheap scares or blood to unsettle you, but one that takes its premise seriously, and then goes where it must, and ends up disturbing more than scaring. This is not one of those horror movies where you have fun watching it. It’s something deeper, and better, than that.