Ti West has a polarizing effect on indie horror fans, representing either a great white hope or an overhyped genre hipster. While The House Of The Devil swept me off my feet with a stylish cult throwback experience, The Innkeepers told a sleepy ghost story that turned me into a napping Snorlax – despite moments of shocking terror. Since I refuse to acknowledge West’s The ABCs Of Death and V/H/S segments, I walked into The Sacrament 50/50 on the director’s previous efforts, expecting another elongated buildup and short, punctuated finale – but would this religious nightmare sport a worthy payoff?
In a time where news has become nothing but celebrity gossip and hateful banter (today), Vice takes pride in a journalistic mission to report only the most volatile, provocative stories. Taking to war-torn countries seeking stories with real societal implications, Vice thinks they’ve found their next big piece while listening to Patrick (Kentucker Audley) chew their ear over a few beers. Apparently Patrick’s sister (Amy Seimetz), a recovering addiction patient, moved down South in search of sobriety, but instead found a new home out of the country. Patrick shows Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) a letter from Caroline begging her brother to come visit, and according to Patrick, an enclosed phone number connected him with a man who told him exactly where to fly in. Joining Patrick, Sam and Jake think they’re filming a heartwarming family reunion, but instead find a secluded community run by a mysterious figure known as Father (Gene Jones).
Ti West hits on a very grounded, naturalistic, and realistic sense of horror in The Sacrament, not creating monsters, but instead peeling back layers of society all too familiar. Eden Parish’s occupants preach community, pacifism, compassion, and togetherness, worshiping the figure who brought everyone together, snatched their life savings, and then locked them away behind guarded doors. We’ve all seen or heard about the Jonestown cult community, and it’s obvious that West drew a hefty amount of inspiration from Jonestown leader Jim Jones himself – but The Sacrament plops us into the belly of the beast. Father exploits the desperate with faithful promises of salvation, establishing himself as a God growing drunker with power. West captures the true insanity of Jonestown through Eden Parish, as each brainwashed commune member pumps glorified bullshit into Sam and Jake – a constant serenity too primal to be true.
While cult worshiping horror typically follows more wacky, overplayed methods, much like Kevin Smith’s Red State, The Sacrament rarely deviates from true actions, somehow making West’s film more influential. Father strikes fear into our hearts by sporting a charismatic Southern drawl and wishes of positivity boiled down to nothing but the ravings of a perverse lunatic. Psychologically speaking, Father’s putty-like control over his followers trumps the most grotesque death sequences in terms of horror, manipulating weak minds with empty promises and jaded spirituality for his own sick pleasure. Father is evil incarnate, hiding behind the facade of an innocent grandparent, seducing the hopeless with a serpent’s tongue. That, my friends, is true, seedy horror.
With that said, I expected more from Ti West. The Sacrament is a very cookie-cutter cult adventure content with expressing minimal bouts of individuality or creativity, recreating the past for modern audiences. Father doesn’t have nearly enough screen time for Gene Jones to carry this movie like Michael Parks carried Red State, as Ti West commits fully to Vice’s documentary assault.
Waiting for Sam and Jake to be fully engulfed in horrific chaos, our characters meander around Eden Parish interviewing townsfolk and soaking in Father’s loudspeaker wisdom. The shots are clear as our documentary teams displays technical craftsmanship while keeping cameras steady and focused, avoiding shaky-cam bullshit and useless jump scares, as tension is The Sacrament‘s main selling point. No spooky ghosts, no gruesome slasher villains, no rabid cannibals – just palpable, white knuckled tension. The problem is, for so long this tension escapes us, and West’s plodding story never deviates from obvious, all-too-familiar pacing. The director (once again) puts all his eggs into a climatic bombshell ending, favoring a destructive depiction of humanity over something like the birthing of an anti-Christ as seen in V/H/S/2‘s “Safe Haven.”
When the bomb goes off and Eden Parish reveals an ugly underbelly, Ti West never lets go of said realism, a respectable bit of guerrilla filmmaking. As I said, the documentary aspect really never lets up. Even when Sam, Jake and Patrick encounter Father’s crazed dimentia, we continually learn about the community and their intentions – targets are never determined. Helplessly watching an innocent parish fly wildly out of control creates a sense of sympathy, but these caring notes immediately clash when also acknowledging each “victim’s” free will, despite being nothing more than hypnotized zombies. Religion isn’t wholly terrifying, but BLIND religious faith, believing in a false savior – that, THAT is utterly terrifying. People willing to abandon their lives because some raging lunatic spouts bible blabber and preaches sanctuary? Preying on the weak and broken could be the most cowardly act of aggression possible, even when guns aren’t involved, and lying through hissing teeth could be even more depraved – but it’s the purely innocent souls lost that gut us completely. The babies? The small children accompanying parents? Ti West doesn’t shy away from the horrors of cultism, and we’re left slacked-jawed asking one simple question – “For what?”
With every role, AJ Bowen inches one step closer to being my favorite genre actor, and teaming with Joe Swanberg creates easy chemistry between the two. Bowen never overacts, and has this inquisitive nature about him that plays perfectly to Vice’s super-journalism mantra – he’s the intellectual everyman. While some actions certainly don’t display proper rationality, letting emotions get the better of him even with a pregnant wife at home, Swanberg’s cynical straight-shooting balances out Bowen’s idealistic hopes. Looking elsewhere, Audley works as a story device, but doesn’t have much heavy lifting to do, and Seimetz shines as Father’s loyal protégé, making for an ably acted crew much like West’s previous films. Acting has never been a sore point in Ti West’s films – just pacing.
While The Sacrament can most certainly be re-titled Jonestown 2.0, West’s film is a modern re-imagining for a brand new generation. It drags its feet in terms of establishment, sluggishly poking around Eden Parish, but West then submerses audiences in a gritty, raw, and emotionally-charged conflict headed by Gene Jone’s “compassionate” leadership. Certain films rebound during more outlandish endings, but it’s West’s decision to remain completely in a believable realm that actually impresses, banking only on man’s own sadistic nature. Questions aren’t meant to be answered, only posed – because that’s the scariest thought of all. Death, destruction, and loss all in the name of conspiracy theories and, well, nothing.
The Sacrament opens with a whimper, building Eden Parish's dull allure, but goes out with a sadistically horrific bang - rewarding the most patient of viewers.