THE SACRAMENT (2013)
From the director of House Of The Devil and The Innkeepers comes this faux documentary chiller about a supposedly idyllic commune that echoes the real-life Jonestown incident of 1978. The story finds fashion photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) traveling to a remote South American jungle with his friends Jake (Joe Swanberg) and Sam (AJ Bowen) when he gets a letter from his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) about her new life in a religious commune. As the three all work for a New York based multimedia company named Vice, they decide to make a documentary about the commune as part of their visit. And while, at first, the place seems like the peaceful haven it appears, that starts to change upon meeting it’s charismatic founder “Father” (a haunting Gene Jones), a man who might be more about playing God then serving him. Now, the longer they stay, the more they realize something is terribly wrong here and they may not live to present the world the story of Eden Parish.
I have been a big fan of director/writer Ti West since first seeing his low budget horror The Roost and he hasn’t disappointed me yet. The Sacrament is a chilling story of desperate people who fall under the control of a manipulative megalomaniac whose promise of freedom is only made so he can imprison and control them. West does a good job of first making us think that maybe Eden Parish isn’t such a bad place as our media crew interview some very happy and satisfied settlers. But, once Father appears and they interview him, West slowly starts to build tension and chills as there is a malicious underlying meaning to some of his answers. As the night goes on, the tension and chills mount as the 3 men realize that this is not a haven and they may not be allowed to leave. The film legitimately disturbs as our crew become increasing afraid and realize they may be trapped in a serpent’s nest and Ti West’s use of the documentary format helps get the viewer in close. If there is any Achilles’ Heel to this film, it is that it follows history a little too closely and anyone with knowledge of Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre, know what’s coming. Sure, it’s unsettling to watch unfold but, it doesn’t quite have the shock it needed to really punctuate the rest of the film and give it the powerful climax it needs. It is effective, don’t get me wrong but, as someone who was a teen in 1978 when the incident this is based on occurred… the familiarity did lessen the event’s impact. Overall the film is disturbing, especially when you add in Eric Robbins’ cinematography and Tyler Bates effectively chilling score but, as this event played out in real-life and is historically renown, it does take away the core shock of what transpires.
But in the director’s favor, West also gets good work out of his cast and this helps with the film’s effect. Swanberg, Audley and Bowen all present realistic characters that definitely give the vibe of metro filmmakers, who, especially in the case of Bowen’s Sam, give the impression of being equal parts idealistic and naive. They wade into their documentary full steam ahead realizing only too late they are in shark infested waters. Their fear appears quite genuine. Amy Seimetz is especially convincing as a woman who seems very happy on the outside but, is brainwashed to the point of committing horrible acts to preserve that ‘happiness’ as her leader commands. But, the real star of this show is a truly mesmerizing Gene Jones as Father. Jones presents a man who truly believes what he says and who uses the word of God and the promise of a peaceful life to control and manipulate those around him. He also is not above bending or breaking the very laws of God that he claims to uphold, if it suits his purpose and maintains his control over his subjects. He comes across as that friendly uncle who always greets you with a warm hug but, this time has a knife hidden behind his back. A really noteworthy performance.
In conclusion, I liked Ti West’s The Sacrament. It is chilling and disturbing and the found footage format puts us in the compound with our beleaguered film crew and adds to the tension. The only real flaw the film has, is that it follows a tragic historical event a bit too closely and anyone with knowledge of that incident knows where this is heading. The last act of the film is less shocking because of it but, is still unsettling to watch unfold under the skilled lens of Ti West and the very chilling performance of Gene Jones. Still very recommended.
Rated 3 (out of 4) jugs of Kool Aid.