The Sacrament is rightfully a horror movie. A damn unsettling one at that. The problem is the film’s promotional materials may be steering audience expectations in a direction less suited for Ti West’s latest. There’s no camp here. Just tragedies.
In my eyes, The Sacrament is much more of a dramatic reenactment than something that is strictly here to spook you. It’s a horror in the same way some movie goers would consider United 93 a horror film. It’s not scary because these things could happen. It’s frightening because most of these things actually did happen.
Basing his work off of the infamous Jonestown Massacre case, West captures and uses remoteness in a way that provides daunting anxiety throughout the movie. As a crew from Vice magazine interview residents of a secluded retreat called Eden Parish and scour the vicinity for facts, the audience can feel the walls slowly closing in. Over the course of the movie, this place known for its serenity, embodies a venomous out-of-place pit; manipulating those who lack independence.
The eeriness stems off of not exactly knowing what’s going on, and our leading crew do a good job at becoming the audience’s vessel for this growing distrust. AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg play the two Vice employees who occasionally have on-screen recaps about what they witnessed and what they felt. They travel with a photographer named Patrick (played by Kentucker Audley) who’s on the trip to meet up with his sister. But, he’s rarely seen once they reach the camp. All three do a great job at portraying their character’s reservations about Eden Parish and are all fairly convincing.
West has used the “found footage” first-person view forThe Sacrament to maintain that exclusive connectivity between the uncertainty and his viewers. It’s a method that brings us closer even though West frequently slips up on his continuity. Here’s an example: a character will be talking to another character. Swanberg’s Jake is the only cameraman. As a character is finishing speaking, the shot cuts to the other person while the first person is still talking – cueing the receiver to speak. Unless Jake can see into the future, the edits are way too quick.
That said, I have a feeling that if you were to critique West’s attempt at this sort of gimmicky filmmaking, he would laugh and shrug his shoulders. He isn’t interested in scaring you with how you’re seeing the movie, but rather with the content of the story that you’re witnessing. West ignores the glaring “found footage” flubs and just makes sure his audience can feel each unwinding, uncompromising catastrophe his characters encounter. It is jarring nonetheless.
The Sacrament is a movie that sticks with you. It doesn’t go for the easy thrills because it’s too busy with respecting its heavier, disturbing content. After a blowout, the camp is a calamity as “Father” starts pulling the ripcords on his communal development. “Father” is played by Gene Jones and he’s absolutely menacing. Even though the actor could’ve afforded to go a bit more over-the-top, his cold sternness is grossly effective.
West gives us a lot of unsettling imagery that is incredibly hard to endure, but it’s also incredibly profound. Lots of things are going to make the last third of The Sacrament a tough sit-down for some. However, even though you may start feeling queasy, you’ll still respect the filmmaker for his bravery and for resisting capitalizing on a tragic event for cheap reactions.
If you think you have the stomach for it, The Sacrament is worth your time and it may even colour you surprised with how much of a punch it packs. Just remember: you’re not headed into the latest shallow gore-fest. You’re going to be watching – and appropriately bothered by – an intoxicating film that will certainly arrest.