Ti West is an interesting filmmaker. His first real splash came with the release of The House of the Devil, a film that apes the devil/cult thrillers of the late ’70s and early ’80s to masterful effect, and that movie is widely regarded as one of the great horror releases of the 2000s. With The Innkeepers, West explored the haunted house film and, I believe, succeeded once more. Subsequent viewings have only cemented my earlier impressions of the film as a fine example of the subgenre. There have been missteps, however. From the producer-meddling result of Cabin Fever 2 to his largely dismissed work in V/H/S and The ABCs of Death, West has been consistently producing work that is, at least, noteworthy for the past five years.
His most recent film, The Sacrament, explores another type of horror, eschewing the supernatural terrors of The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers for a tale that is all-too-familiar for those of us born in the early-to-mid-’70s. Using the found-footage style he explored in the anthology films, West attempts to recreate one of the most horrifying real-life stories in a fictional setting. The result is strangely ambiguous.
Our heroes are reporters for the outlet VICE, journalists who practice “subjective honesty” with regard to their subjects. In this case, one of the reporters, Patrick (Kentucker Audley, an incredible name) regales his peers with the story of his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz, You’re Next), a recovering drug addict who has fled the country with a religious group, that could easily be viewed as a cult. Inspired by his story, cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg, A Horrible Way to Die) and reporter Sam (AJ Bowen, The House of the Devil) organize a visit with Patrick to document the reunion and capture footage of the compound where Caroline resides.
After being met by gunmen, the trio venture through the jungle to a clearing, christened “Eden Parish” by the residents. While the initial impressions are of a commune for the outcasts of society, a sinister cloud gathers as Jake and Sam explore the grounds prior to their meeting with the charismatic and mysterious Father, played with equal parts dread and folksy charm by Gene Jones.
Of course things go wrong, and the film descends into a roller coaster ride of shocks as Father gathers his flock to execute one final act of defiance to the outside world. Along the way, the film suffers from the usual “Why are they filming all of this?” problems most of these films have, leaning on the old chestnut, “We have to let the world know what happened.” It’s a thin excuse, and many of the later shots bend the logic to the point of breaking, but it’s not the most egregious offender of this type of filmmaking.
The biggest problem with the film is a subjective one, and one perhaps elusive to a younger generation. The Sacrament exists in an odd uncanny valley, where the fictional and the real collide in a jarring way. There is no way to view the final act of this film without conjuring tales of Jim Jones and the Guyana tragedy. If you aren’t familiar with this bloody historical footnote, perhaps The Sacrament will play better, but I could never shake the feeling that I was watching a very well-done dramatization on one of the murder-porn cable channels. As soon as Father begins his final speech to his congregation, echoes of Jim Jones demand to be considered, and I am unable to discern if West wants the comparison to be so naked, or if he could not tell the true tale of Guyana due to copyright. What remains is a film that feels part documentary, part horror film, and neither component meshes well with the other.
That’s not to say the movie isn’t compelling. There are thrills to be had here, and even some playfulness with expectations of found-footage films like this one. The performances range from capable to astounding (Jones really is remarkable here), and the few visual effects used in the film are graphic and visceral. The characters, likewise, are relatable and push the story forward in a number of intriguing ways. In particular, the relationship between the estranged Caroline and Patrick results in the most chilling and heartbreaking moment of the movie.
As I reflect on the film, my lingering sense is one of confusion rather than satisfaction. I will be curious to hear West speak about it on the director’s commentary, and I dare to repeat that those unfamiliar with Jim Jones and Jonestown may find a new well of terror to draw from. For me, it was a reminder of the real-world horrors we visit on ourselves and how no fiction can surpass the true evil that men do.