The Sacrament directed by Ti West and starring genre vets AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, and Amy Seimetz is another entry in the flourishing found footage sub-genre of horror. If you absolutely hate the found footage conceit, then you’re probably going to miss The Sacrament, and that is a damn shame. The film is quite interesting, well-acted, and has at its emotional core one of the great tragedies of the 20th century.
The story rolls into action when three Vice reporters accept an invitation by Caroline (a sister of one of the reporters) to visit Eden Parish. Upon arrival, they’re met by men with automatic rifles and baleful glares. Things are tense until Caroline shows up and escorts the visitors into Eden.
Inside, the three men are looked on by suspicious but friendly people. There are few modern comforts, but to talk to a parish member you would think such things are the toys of sinners. Every so often, you here the voice of ‘Father’ over the loud speakers dispensing with Bible quotations or reminders to be kind to one another. The surface of the utopia seems nice enough and everybody acts happy.
All through this period, there is a slight unease to the situation. The three men are vulnerable to the whims of the Father and his people.
The Father (played by Gene Jones) doesn’t make his physical appearance until halfway through the film in a dynamite scene involving Sam (AJ Bowen) and the Father doing an interview in front of the congregation. The way Gene Jones works his charisma and the skill involved in exacting the emotions he wants you to feel gives you insight into how Jim Jones might have accomplished the same in Jonestown. By the end of the interview, both the viewer and Sam are feeling wrung out and mesmerized by the Father’s presence.
Sam later discovers a group of people wanting out of Eden Parish. Word gets back to Father, and in a chilling climax, Ti West takes us through a reenactment of the group suicide of Jonestown. A helicopter providing possible safe passage fuels the final 15 minutes of the movie as Sam and friends attempt to escape.
Ti West films are an odd bunch. I’d call them nontraditional in a horror sense. There are a lot of character moments, just enough plot to keep the story moving, and a great deal of scare-free running time. He keeps twisting the rubber band, increasing the tension to a point where you just *know* the tension will cause the band to snap and scare the holy hell out of you. He does this in his best film, The House of the Devil (The satanic cult scene in the house toward the end still chills me). In The Innkeepers, he pulls the trick using only two or three appearances of a ghost. Even in his terrible short contribution to V/H/S he builds tension and provides the scares at the perfect moment.
Another thing Ti West does so well is show you the cold finality of death. There is a scene between Caroline and her brother toward the end of the movie that made me ill to watch. West, as a director, knows how to show you just how awful it is to die.
The Sacrament could have been made without the found footage trick. West plays with POV and camera angles loosely, not at all adhering to the bounds of what the cameras being carried would capture. I wish he had mixed a traditional POV with found footage.
While there is plenty to like in The Sacrement, plenty exists that bring the film down. The conclusion relies on a bit of a deus ex machina (a confusing choice by a bit player). Joe Swanberg, while a good director, is not a great actor. Some of the dialogue will cause eye rolling (guy walks into a room filled with beds, medical equipments, bandages, crutches and says “What is this room?”).
If you’re a horror fan, I encourage you to see this film. If you are a fan of incredible acting, then see The Sacrament for the work of Gene Jones. He owns this film.