Young writer/director Ti West has been making a name for himself among genre fans with his supernatural horror films House of the Devil and The Innkeepers in the last few years. With The Sacrament, he looks away from the paranormal and to more human roots for sources of terror. Not only that, he opts for taking on the exasperating found footage format. This, along with the dreaded opening credit ‘Eli Roth Presents’ don’t bode well for The Sacrament. However, like Bobcat Goldthwaite in Willow Creek, West doesn’t succumb to any of the sub-genre’s clichés and avoids using any cheap tricks to gain frights.
West isn’t particularly interested in jump scares at all really; he’s much more about creating a surrounding atmosphere of dread. Nearly the entire movie takes place in daylight outdoors, there’s minimal ‘shaky-cam’ and indeed additional camera sources, enabling for editing more cinematic than found-footage usually allows. On top of this, West’s not afraid to use outside music and sound to enhance the experience. There are times when it doesn’t feel like found-footage at all. He only weakens the film when he puts in an unnecessary introduction and text about the ‘real events’ portrayed.
A conversation that turns up every now and again with movies is whether or not it’s acceptable to take real life tragedies and turn them into pieces of entertainment. I personally do not have any problem with the principle of this, and The Sacrament is a film that could test some people’s tolerance for the notion. This isn’t Schindler’s List, it’s not setting out to educate about the human evil that inspired it, it’s merely trying to be a horror/thriller movie.
The real-life inspiration in this case is the notorious Jonestown Massacre of 1978 where hundreds of people died. It updates the basics of that event to a contemporary setting, and follows 3 journalists as they decide to do a story on ‘Eden Parrish’, the Christian commune where one of their sister’s has been living. After arriving there and having some trouble getting in, the initially idyllic Eden starts looking to have a sinister undertone.
West’s slow reveals of the true nature of Eden Parrish are well handled, with a couple of particularly memorable moments. A few of his regular collaborators (Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Amy Seimetz) drive the film but it contains a perfectly placed performance from Gene Jones as ‘Father’, the leader of the religious group. He’s charismatic enough to understand why people are drawn to him while sufficiently unsettling to be a genuine treat to the protagonists. A central set piece simply involves an interview between the reporters and ‘Father’ but West stages the thing to demonstrate the power of cult leaders.
For all of The Sacrament’s good work in building up atmosphere, setting and the ‘Father’ character, it has a huge central problem running through it, that of familiarity. I know all about the Jonestown Massacre and what happened there, and as such knew exactly where this movie was going, and it doesn’t take long to get there. The would-be ‘shocking’ finale begins with about 30 minutes still to go and from the first hints of it onward the film ceases to hold as much interest and tension. Now I’m sure there are a few horror fans out there who don’t know anything about Jonestown, and for them this film will surely be far more effective, but I imagine they’re in a significant minority. It doesn’t even ‘dramatically enhance’ the true story in a way one might expect a horror movie to, if anything it waters it down.
The Sacrament is a well-put together horror film that takes on a still very relevant tragedy, but it could have done a lot more with it. I’ve heard real life audio from Jonestown and it’s more disturbing than this film could ultimately be for me.