Written by: Matt Molgaard
Screening Ti West’s The Sacrament taught me two things. First, found footage films don’t have to center around CGI ghosts, mental institutes or outdoor expeditions. Second, a crew that is wholly comfortable with each other will produce a picture that is infinitely more believable than the vast majority of handi-cam pics. Ti West, Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen and Amy Seimetz are all very close, away from the screen. This is a group of friends, and their connectivity off screen leads to extremely believable work on screen. Not for a moment do a single one of these players come across as uncomfortable. It’s almost as though a handful of friends just got together and said, let’s make an intense movie, but let’s be us in the process and avoid any awkward shots. It works, very well.
If you’re at all familiar with the infamous Jonestown Massacre, you know (pretty much) exactly what this film is about. A small film crew earn an invite to the Eden Parish, a community built from the ground up, a manipulative madman at the helm, guiding his “followers” through the process of building this new “paradise”. Eden Parish is isolated, a virtually unknown slice of earth where the inhabitants live off the land – no technology, no crime, no hate, racism, yada, yada. However, Eden Parish isn’t what it seems, and the perfect illusion that “Father” – the leader of this compound – attempts to project is anything but the truth. There’s some vile shit happening here, and it doesn’t take this film crew 24 hours to realize the positive image is all a façade, and “Father” has the community completely brainwashed. Well, most of them. Those who are beaten and forced to do things against their will hold the truth close to their hearts (fear of repercussion), and that’s ultimately what drags our protagonists into a fight for their lives. Those who have been wronged clamor for the chance to leave with the crew. “Father” sees his manipulative world crumbling in the blink of an eye, and as you may expect (if you are familiar with the Jonestown Massacre), he takes action to ensure no one leaves, and no one lives. Here’s to you Jim Jones, it’s time to drink the Kool-Aid.
This is a creepy tale, and it doesn’t feel like a Ti West piece in the least. The crafty camera angles are absent, the slow but immensely effective burn is AWOL and the indoor shots that West manages so beautifully aren’t here to be found. In that regard, the film isn’t going to please many of West’s followers. On the other hand, this really is an excellent found footage film, and we’ve gotten to a point where we just don’t see many of those… ever. West did the subgenre justice and then some, even if it does lack a few of his trademarks.
Bone chilling realism drives this machine (I also loved the commentary in the film, especially the views of those who don’t lean on modern technology in day-to-day life), and the performances from AJ Bowen (quite possibly his greatest performance to date), Joe Swanberg (I fuckin’ love this guy) and Gene Jones are simply remarkable. As a viewer I cared about each character, for better or worse, and at the end of the day, in order for a film to succeed, we have to be invested in the characters. West makes it happen in this instance and he does so with seeming ease.
Don’t look into this one expecting another House of the Devil or Innkeepers. You’re not going to find that kind of picture here. What you will find is a harrowing narrative that feels doomed from the start. Audiences are going to get a clear eye for the world’s honest horrors. And the world’s honest horrors are markedly more disturbing than outrageous concepts. Is The Sacrament the horror film of the year? No, it’s not. But it might just be the found footage horror film of the year, and it’s definitely a deeply alarming piece of work. My recommendation? Watch this bad mother fucker, it’s going to climb under your skin in atypical fashion. And if you want it out of your system, you’d better be prepared to go all Ruins on yourself and carve the nastiness right from your core.