Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Sacrament (2014): Review

The Sacrament is a 2014 mockumentary cult film. Directed by Ti West (House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) and starring Aj Bowen (You’re Next), Joe Swanberg (You’re Next, V/H/S) and Gene Jones. The film is loosely based on the real life events of the Jonestown Massacre.

The movie is framed as an edgy documentary for popular website Vice. After filmmaker Sam (Bowen) is approached by a brother concerned that his sister may have joined a cult, he grabs cameraman Jake (Swanberg) and the three of them set off for the ambiguous location of Eden Parish. When they arrive they find the sister in question more than happy in the jungle utopia along with many other American emigrants, including many children and elderly people. However, after interviewing Father (Jones), the enigmatic leader of the cult, they realise that not everyone is as happy as they seem and that outsiders are not particularly welcome. This culminates with the majority of the cult committing suicide, either voluntarily or by force, and the documentary crew fighting for their lives to escape the isolated community.

I’ve made no secret in the past of my dislike of Ti West and his hugely overrated films but I have to say, this is his finest work to date. I really liked the format of the Vice documentary and the setting of the cult seemed somewhat fresher than your average American based horror. AJ Bowen gives a solid performance as the emotional core of the film and Gene Jones gives a mesmerising turn as the charming but sinister leader of the cult. One of the strongest elements of the film is the overwhelmingly dark and oppressive atmosphere in the final act. Although anyone familiar with the events of the Jonestown massacre will expect a pretty unhappy ending, West skilfully tips the tone from cannibal style exploitation into full on sickening horror, made all the more disturbing by the factual events that inspired the scenes.

However, there are still flaws from West’s previous works that creep into this piece, namely script and pacing. Whereas previous efforts like House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2011) can be characterised as a lot of slow build suspense with no real payoff, The Sacrament seems to rush itss first act to get to the sinister stuff, feature a shocking climax and then end fairly abruptly. I , for one, wouldn’t have minded at all if the film had run 20-30 minutes longer to maybe accommodate a little more characterisation and backstory of the Eden Parish community. In addition to this, aside from its strong central performances I feel the film really suffers from the “actors trying really hard not to look like they’re in a found footage movie” syndrome which was seen to great effect in the infamous Devil Inside (2012). Although in fairness, the actors obviously haven’t been given a great script to work with and much of the dialogue is laughable, including Swanberg being allocated all of the “Basil exposition”.

I’m not sure if Ti West will ever make a great film but this is certainly a good film and, whilst not touching on the greatness of the suspiciously similar Sound of my voice (2011), it stands as a fairly fresh entry into the cult film canon. I’m a great defender of the found footage genre and I feel that modelling the format on a real life style of journalism also keeps things interesting enough to cover for any lack of plausibility. The Sacrament is West’s strongest overall work and fans, and non fans alike, will revel in his leap forward in directorial ability whilst retaining his signature retro-exploitation style.

*** 3 Stars

What did you think of The Sacrament? Are you a Ti West fan?


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