Director Ti West (House of the Devil) finally succumbs to the “found-footage” craze with his 5th feature film. Well … this is his 6th feature film if one counts Cabin Fever 2, which West most assuredly does not. Eli “Horror Master” Roth (sorry, but that label is still amusing because it’s so presumptuous) presumably wasn’t thrilled about that sequel getting hacked up by a soccer team full of producers. So West and Roth teamed up for another project with Roth producing. The result is a creepy, slow-burning thriller that may cause sweat to trickle from your pits. West is skilled at ratcheting up tension, and this film is a further example of his abilities. Sacrament takes its time and builds a true sense of dread. It ends explosively if not entirely effectively.
This film isn’t exactly “found footage” because the footage was never misplaced. It’s sort of a faux-documentary based upon the Jonestown cult suicides. Three Vice magazine (yes, that Vice) journalists — Jake (Joe Swansberg), Sam (AJ Bowen) and Patrick Joe (Kentucker Audley) — travel to Eden Parrish, a self-sustaining utopia that can only be reached by a complex, confusing route of helicopter and on-foot travel. Patrick has received contact from his troubled sister, Caroline (Amy Semietz). He seeks to rescue her from the clutches of the cult. Er, her “family.”
Patrick brought along his colleagues to film an exposé on the cult, but those plans are shut down by armed guards. The journos should have figured out at that very moment that trouble was their business, but they are swept up in Caroline’s cheery greeting. Other members of the cult are also welcoming and positive, but the cracks eventually start to show and a sense of dread lurks within the collective demeanor. Naturally, things are not as they seem, and viewers are chillingly terrorized.
The cult’s leader, Father (the fantastic Gene Jones, previously seen alongside Javier Bardem’s unravelling candy wrapper in No Country for Old Men), stays hidden for some time until Caroline arranges for a recorded interview. This interaction happens in front of an audience of cult members, and Father skillfully whips up his followers and unsettles the newcomers. The flock seems almost universally satisfied and happy though, and the three outsiders start to see why these people could be happy with their apparently peaceful existence. This interview is the best part of the film even if it does run long. This is a psychological thriller, and West milks his viewer’s expectations. It’s simply a matter of when sh-t will hit the fan. A few cult members begin to furtively engage with the journos and let them know what’s really happening behind the scenes. From there, the action spirals into chaos and gut-wrenching terror.
Even without any prior knowledge of the unfortunate events of Jonestown, viewers of this movie know right away what will happen. One, we’re watching a horror movie. Two, the score is effectively unnerving. The film IS thoroughly well acted, and it’s entertaining to watch the events unfold through these performers even though nothing is too surprising. Father is an effectively evil character, but even he is bound by the constraints of his inspiration, Jim Jones.
Sacrament is a solid enough “horror” movie even if it doesn’t squarely fit into either the old-school or gory corners of the genre. Any downfalls are the result of not breaking new ground. A lot of cult movies leave unanswered questions like this one does. Such as how exactly could all these people allow themselves to end up at Eden Parrish? We hear that Caroline went to live in a sober living community in Mississippi. Somehow she ended up in a foreign country as part of a cult. There are other similar “rational” explanations, but why are these people so willing to give up their freedom in order to become part of the fold? Perhaps it’s unfair to expect this film to deliver that wisdom. The film unintentionally leaves certain things open ended. In doing so, a promising thriller becomes just another movie about a cult.
It’s further difficult to suspend disbelief when a “found-footage” film unconvincingly fudges coverage of the action. Found footage can really work in a horror film with a supernatural edge where things that don’t need to be explained. But when a movie attempts to give insight into a real-life phenomenon like Jamestown, it would be nice to leave the handheld conceit behind. This movie adds nothing to existing stock of movies featuring cults. It’s not a bad way to spend an hour and a half, but it could have delivered us unto more.
Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She can be found at Celebitchy.