Indie Horror-thon: The Sacrament (2013)
It’s difficult to review one of Ti West’s films without seeming hyperbolic in my praise for the young filmmaker, who over the years has established himself as one of the most focused and effective horror classicists in the business. He directed or starred in 5 of the 31 films in this Indie Horror Marathon, because his deeply-rooted passion for the genre is so evident in each story. The Sacrament, his first found-footage effort, is no exception.
The Sacrament follows Patrick, a fashion photographer who receives a letter from his sister, a recovering addict. She invites him to visit Eden Parish, a utopian community in a remote location that’s only accessible by helicopter. Patrick takes his co-workers– a reporter and a camera operator, along with them in hopes of making a documentary about the mysterious settlement that’s founded by a secretive religious leader who goes by Father.
The helicopter pilot warns the three documentary film makers that he will leave with or without them the next day. The trio’s initial experience at the commune is shifty–they’re met with unwelcoming armed guards who patrol the grounds. But once Patrick meets his sister and finds that she seems happier and healthier than ever, they’re impressed by the group’s development. However, when they begin to interview some of the parish’s residents, it becomes clear that something is just not right.
The Sacrament premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2013. It was released on demand on May 1, 2014 and had a limited theatrical release on June 6, 2014. Eli Roth produced the film, describing it as “West’s first mainstream movie,” even though it didn’t have a large budget, big-name actors or a wide theatrical release.
Although The Sacrament is not marketed as a “based on true events” horror pic, its plot borrows heavily from the real life events of the Jonestown Massacre of 1978. Basing films on true events without disclaiming it as such is becoming a trademark of West. The House of the Devil is purportedly based on true events. And The Yankee Pedlar Inn, in which The Innkeepers is filmed, is similarly known to be haunted.
West, who turned 34 this month, studied the Jonestown Massacre diligently in making The Sacrament, which is evident in both the belief system of the people of Eden Parish and the settlement structure itself. It’s possible that not marketing the film as “based on true events” was chosen in order to avoid offending those affected by the real massacre or appearing tasteless. If you enjoy The Sacrament, you’ll want to do some research on it.
The parts for the four main characters were specifically written by West for each actor, which is why they fit so well. West has impeccable chemistry with Joe Swanberg (You’re Next), Kentucker Audley (V/H/S) and AJ Bowen (House of the Devil, You’re Next) due to their collaborative history. The three leads provide an interesting outside perspective of Eden Parish as they attempt to uncover the camp’s history and belief system for their documentary.
Amy Seimetz plays the part of Patrick’s brain-washed sister, Caroline, with a sense of innocence and bewilderment. Her cheerful personality makes her easy to sympathize with. Caroline serves as the film’s primary victim, as her vulnerability as a recovering drug addict allows Father to manipulate her.
When West cast Gene Jones as cult leader Father, he wanted to make sure that Father seemed like a genuine, well-meaning person who nonetheless was driven to evil by his paranoia. Adding this level of complexity to the film’s antagonist prevented The Sacrament from falling into genre cliches and providing stale commentary about religious extremism. West is, at all times, more invested in the characters and story than about making a poignant statement.
The film’s most unnerving scene occurs when Bowen’s character, the reporter, is given permission to interview the cult leader with one condition–that the conversation take place on stage in front of all of the Eden Parish members. While mostly civil in nature, this scene ingeniously gives the viewers a somewhat disorienting look at Father’s craft of psychological manipulation. Before this scene, most of Father’s dialog was broadcasted over the community’s intercom. His charming southern mannerisms make it easier to imagine how so many had fallen under his sinister spell.
Slowly the daunting but non-violent first half descends into a hellish nightmare. West described his sixth feature as his most horrific film yet, and said that he wanted the film’s violence to be upsetting. The fact that the film almost always feels like a real documentary makes it that much more frightening.
The Sacrament takes itself seriously, as it should with its subject matter, making the film difficult to watch. Horror purists will be disappointed by the film’s pacing for much of the first half. But The Sacrament’s brilliant atmospheric terror and disturbing authenticity make it one of the most impressive additions to Ti West’s growing catalog of exemplary horror gems.
You can order The Sacrament on Amazon right here.