I’m still trying to decide whether Ti West is a future master-of-horror or just some guy who got really lucky with the amazing throwback horror spectacle that was The House of the Devil. Prior to that film, West released The Roost and Trigger Man, both of which were moderately entertaining, but in no way hinted at what was to come in his 2009 breakthrough hit. After the success of The House of the Devil, West would follow up with the universally panned gorefest that was Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, the entertaining-yet-uneven The Innkeepers, and a pair of throwaway short offerings in both V/H/S (“Second Honeymoon”) and The ABC’s of Death (“M is for Miscarriage).
With the exception of The Innkeepers, none of those other films came close to showing the affinity for horror he displayed in The House of the Devil, but, with his latest offering – the pseudo-documentary/found-footage thriller The Sacrament – West proves that he’s got the goods to deliver some solid suspense, but, sadly, it’s undone by uneven performances, a predictable story (albeit one based on fact), and what has now got to be the most tired gimmick in all of cinema.
The Sacrament opens with Sam (A.J. Bowen), a reporter for Vice.com, talking into camera and telling us about a conversation he’d recently had with his friend and fashion photographer, Patrick (Kentucker Audley), about a religious cult that Patrick’s drug-addict sister, Caroline (the gorgeous Amy Seimetz), has fallen in with during her attempt to kick her addiction. It seems that said cult and all of its members has left the U.S. and moved to a third world paradise they call Eden Parish, and Caroline has extended Patrick an invitation to come visit her new “home”.
Being a journalist, Sam smells a great story, and convinces Patrick to take him and his cameraman, Jake (Joe Swanberg), to Eden Parish in hopes of landing an interview with the cult’s enigmatic leader known only as “Father” (Gene Jones).
After a very long flight, followed by a helicopter trip into the deep jungle, the trio is greeted by armed locals who load them into a pickup truck and drive them down the only road in and out of Eden Parish, where Patrick is reunited with Caroline, and the group is given a brief tour of the community. Sam and Jake are left on their own while Patrick and Caroline catch up, giving the reporters a chance to interview some of the cult members.
At the end of the day, the pair is actually surprised and rather letdown by the fact that Eden Parish is, by all accounts, a happy, progressive, and flourishing settlement. Later, when Sam is granted a sit down interview with Father, himself, he fumbles most of his questions; partially thanks to jetlag, but mostly due to his subject’s larger-than-life persona and the fact that the interview is conducted in front of a live audience of Father’s parishioners. Even though the interview has a few contentious moments, Sam walks away from it even more convinced that Eden Parish is not at all what they were expecting (or, cynically hoping) it to be.
That is, however, until Sam is given a note by a mute young girl that suggests Eden Parish isn’t the paradise its fervent followers claim it to be.
Anyone familiar with the tragic events of the Jonestown tragedy of 1978 will know how this all plays out, and, for the first two acts, anyway, The Sacrament makes for a tense, harrowing, and surprising realistic pseudo-documentary very much like what one would see were they to tune in to an actual Vice piece. When the third act kicks in, however, the “found footage” approach saps all of the believability out of the film, with Swanberg’s Jake filming everything despite being shot at and pursued through the woods by Eden Parish’s guards while “alternate footage” is captured by Caroline, who’s been given Patrick’s DSLR and told to film the final sacrament by Father. This would be fine if the footage was of the shaky-cam variety (like that of Jake’s), but it’s rock solid, perfectly focused stuff – more akin to a something shot by a seasoned pro or mounted on a tripod rather than the work of a shrieking, panicked woman who, at this point in the film, is also supposedly high as a kite. What’s worse is the fact that “Caroline’s camera” seems to be everywhere at once, obviously employed to fill the gaps left by Jake’s absence, but done so in a wholly unrealistic and unorganic manner.
As an aside, I must admit that one of the major reasons this whole third act bothered me was actually due to a real Vice report I’d recently watched, where a crew was attacked in the Ukraine, and their van was surrounded by an angry mob who smashed the windows and pelted it with rocks as the terrified crew drove to safety on flat tires. The cameraman in this instance did what any rational person would do; he set the camera down on the ground and ducked! All that was salvaged from that entire ride was about five minutes of horrifying audio, and some dark, shaky footage of the floor of their vehicle. It’s a far cry from The Sacrament’s Jake running from gunfire while clutching his massive, always-filming camera by his side, and then returning to Eden’s Parish with the bloody thing mounted on his shoulder despite dozens of dead bodies littering the compound while armed guards patrol the grounds.
It’s not just the lazy use of the found footage gimmick that bothered me; I was also a put off by the performances of both Bowen and Swanberg (who, along with Seimetz, West, and director Adam Wingard, apparently make up some sort of new mumblecore/indie-horror Brat Pack), who seem to be ad-libbing their way through the film. I get the fact that this off-the-cuff approach is common in the sub-genre but here it comes off as clumsy and amateurish, especially when compared to Gene Jones, whose performance as Father is nothing short of bone-chilling. His interview segment with Bowen is the absolute highlight of the film, as Jones deftly balances his character's compassion for his followers and his contempt for everything Sam represents. It's a truly tense and uncomfortable watch.
While it gets off to a promising start, The Sacrament ultimately squanders a really good concept, as well as the talents of Jones, Seimetz (who does an admirable job in a thankless role), and, yes, Ti West, himself, as I can’t help but think that he’d have made a much better film were he to have taken the traditional route, free of the constraints (not to mention the flat, lifeless look) of the found footage genre.