Directed by: Ti West
USA, 95 min.
Ti West. What a rollercoaster of a career he’s taken me on! The House of the Devil was amazing original and really promised something really great. Cabin Fever 2 : Spring Fever was kind of meh, but fun. The Innkeepers was fantastic and equally impressive as The House of the Devil had been. Second Honeymoon, his entry into anthology horror V/H/S was alright and had that classic West twist ending, and M is for Miscarriage, his part of The ABC’s of Death was just a lazy insult and really nowhere near the quality of story that one comes to expect from Ti West… so what was The Sacrament going to be like? Would it be a reclaim of the magic West certainly can deliver, or would it fall into the same disappointing pit that several others have?
First off, The Sacrament has a great poster as you can see above, a great trailer as you can see below and all great premises that make fantastic movies. But West takes a risk with The Sacrament. Well really several risks, namely that his story has a familiar ring to it as movies like both René Cardona’s Guyana: Cult of the Damned (1979), and Kevin Smith’s Red State (2011), and certainly the “swanky” on the edge documentary filmmakers of yesteryear, the infamous Alay Yates and his missing crew of Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust 1980.
The basic set up is this; Fashion photographer Patrick Carter’s [Kentucker Audley] former drug addicted sister Caroline [Amy Seimetz] went to live with a religious community at an undisclosed location. Vice correspondent Sam Turner [A.J. Bowen] decides tags along with cameraman Jake [Joe Swanberg] to document the community and the Carter family Reunion in hopes of a new rad story for VICE.
They pack up and take off to a cool very VICE like montage and music, taking us through the opening credits, which I’d possibly have left of and gone right into the story, just like VICE does if I was trying to mimic before setting them down in the unmentioned jungle area. Armed guards meet them at the makeshift helicopter-landing patch in the jungle area before they are shown on the back of a truck and taken towards the camp to meet up with Caroline. At Eden Parish they are met with more hostility. Forced to turn off their camera Sam starts to worry about this gig. When Patrick’s sister Caroline finally show up, she’s fill of, apologizes and explains that the Kalashnikovs are merely a precaution as both government and locals in the area are not to happy about their self-made community in the middle of nowhere.
Still uncertain if they will be granted an interview with either Caroline or the parish’s mystic leader figure Father [Gene Jones] the team get right to work and start interviewing people in the community who all praise the community whist Father delivers messages of peace and love over the P.A. system. Later that night Father grants the documentary team a brief interview where he answers the investigatory questions in a defensive manner before politely calling the interview to an end and inviting the team to a celebration in honor of their visit. It’s during this late night festivity that Savannah [Talia Dobbins] ay young mute girl, approaches Sam and hands him a hand written not with the sentence “Please help us” written on it. The parish members engage in a creepy religious chanting. Worried for his whereabouts, Sam and Jake look for Patrick, but can’t find him. Tensions build, and it becomes apparent that Eden Parish holds secrets and dark sides that certainly are not commonly associated with Paradise!
Just in case you do not know anything about the movies I mentioned initially, I’ll stop there. I wouldn’t want you feeling that I spoiled anything for you. Instead I’ll get right into the pros and cons of this film a movie that certainly will find its audience, will be a great thrill for some, but at the same time is a movie that could, should and would have been so much better if only a few things had been taken into consideration. At least in my opinion.
Style wise West totally nails it. It is like watching a VICE documentary, and believe me I’ve seen almost all of them. The Sacrament boasts cool hipster vibe, and a cool soundtrack, addressing the viewers and has documentary hosts/journalists breaking the fourth wall whenever possible, dodgy cinematography, candid camera chats shot with extreme dutched angles – because its all ad hock documentary right! Even the font and explanatory texts that add narrative to the piece work just like VICE documentaries do. The only real difference is that The Sacrament is trying to come off as if you are seeing the unedited footage.
This brings in a definitive Cannibal Holocaust/Blair Witch/Cloverfield tone to the footage, which is supposedly acting as candid material. It works, but being someone who has worked professionally with television for the last twenty years, the somewhat too good and well-edited “raw footage” often takes me out of the atmosphere West is after. This is also where I start to loose interest, because personally I find that the found footage/raw material gimmick is losing it’s shtick and in a movie not to unlike this one, I’ve seen it for real in stuff like Barbet Schroder’s magnificent General Idi Amin Dada (1974) and if you’ve seen enough Mondo movies you’ve seen the Jonestown documentary footage too.
What starts off so perfectly as an authentic VICE report simply fizzles into generic “keep the camera rolling” mode, despite candid from the heart confessions of what Sam and Jake are thinking and experiencing. I’m easily disappointed in movies that set off to be one thing, as in this case, a VICE documentary and then end up being edited found footage movies, where certain angles may have been shot at random by the second camera that they have, but that camera was left behind, and that’s a big continuity error – especially when you end your movie with a text claiming that this footage is the only first hand account of what took place at Eden Parish. I also don’t like the fact that it goes movie drama style when signaling that it wants to be VICE, and that’s also why I’d leave the actor and director credits off the start of the movie if this was my flick. Hell, I would have made it with unknowns, in three segments and put it out there as an authentic VICE documentary. Now THAT would have blown socks off an audience!
Most the cast are the backbone of the Mumblecore movement and there’s certainly nothing wrong with their performances, on the contrary, they are awesome and sell it perfectly. The main problem for me is that they never really manage to generate any real empathy, or concern. There’s so much more that could have been done with the characters. Sam could have been much more cynical, or given a more dimensional approach seen as he has a pregnant wife at home and on several occasions refers to them. There’s something of interest there a cynical TV producer out to exploit and mock something “sacred” whilst having his own strong values even closer to heart. Or why not have cameraman Jake be more push and risk taking? Then there’s Patrick, the swanky fashion photographer who more or less is the initiator of the journey is missing for a huge chunk of the film, why not use his character more, have him being a sleazebag taking photos in that risky borderline sexuality style that VICE photographers do? There’s a lot more that had been possible with these characters. Caroline could have been used to shed more light into the inner circle and workings of the parish, the one to shed light on why it’s so fantastic there, and all those “dark sides” mentioned at times during the corse of the film. She could even have built the Father character to a bigger, mightier omnipresent, enigmatic or anything person. Instead this is somewhat done through supporting actors in sound bites and interview snippets explaining what and why Eden Parish is heaven on earth, but it doesn’t add anything to the mysticism of Father. He never really comes of as a great leader, despite sporting shades and khaki suit, but just another bloke with a bunch of followers looking to him for salvation. Neither do I sympathize, or gain any kind of emotional recognition with Father and his parish as there’s not really anything unique in there… to be honest, it could be called a re-boot of the afore mentioned René Cardona Jr. flick Guyana: Cult of the Damned (1979), because it really doesn’t add anything. (Just Google the 1978, December 4th issue of Newsweek and you’ll see certain images that are almost identical to The Sacrament)
With that said, this is certainly precisely what West was after, to recreate a piece of history with contemporary imaging. There’s really no way that you can look at the Newsweek or news reports of that time and not react to the simple fact that they are despite being almost forty years old, still just as exploitative as some of the VICE reports. Perhaps it is all a commentary on how easily manipulated we human beings are in a world where nothing really holds any real value, the infortunes of people following false prophets are reported on every day. It could well be a reflection on the VICE generation where everything is met with a Meh and a witty tweet update. It could also be a comment on how easy we look at the value of others lives in our very busy and cynical world.
There is certainly something bitter in the after taste of The Sacrament, and at the end of the day, I have to say that it did capture my attention, it did draw me in and it did what it was supposed to do, i.e. entertain me, although the final act was a rather big letdown. I was expecting something else, not a low key, simple observing, almost accidentally “caught up in the events” story. Ti West can do better that this, and despite using his familiar tricks of an ordinary world, low key eeriness, and building a magnificent tension within the space of it’ universe, the air seeps out towards the end. The Sacrament is a damned fine piece of craftsmanship and a really anxious movie as it slowly builds, leaving that West trait of creeping unease seep in as it moves towards its climax. Within the Ti West universe, it’s a decent piece that will sit well just below the notches that The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers carved in genre cinema.
This is a movie that has me polarized, there's some really great things going on here, but at the same time, there's several things that bug me. The real down side of The Sacrament is that it doesn’t really explore or bring anything new to the table, at least not for someone who has been around the block a few times and seen a reasonable amount of exploitation fare. The story is overtly parallel with the Jonestown Massacre. The status quo is reinstated, and the down beat, mind fuck ending that comes with great Ti West films is lacking, despite the film presenting a bleak finale. Oh, and there’s one scene that is so fucking stupid that it totally wrecks one of the arcs West has preciously built to that point, and a moment that is totally illogical in the shadow of the events that have taken place. Perhaps it’s my knowledge of the stories and movies that without a doubt inspired The Sacrament that ruin my experience, and that constant desire for West to get back to the magnificence of The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers.