When a Vice documentary crew discover that one of their own’s sister has fled the US, they embark on a journey to a remote jungle in an undisclosed location to find her. Once they are on the ground in “Eden Parish”, their initial warm reception soon fades away, revealing something entirely more sinister.
In the past I have not hidden my love of Ti West’s style and directorial ability. The way he manipulates his audience with camerawork and sound is second to none in the horror genre, and I would definitely class him in the school of “soon to be auteurs”. That is why, when I discovered he was directing a found footage movie, I was slightly shocked.
The Sacrament, on paper, is certainly West’s most conventional movie. There is no vintage 80s aesthetic (The House of the Devil); there aren’t any ghosts (The Innkeepers) and we actually get to see some plot, unlike his short in The ABCs of Death. Instead of the lingering self-awareness he has shown in the past, we are treated to the traditional structure and pacing one would expect of a found footage movie. Maybe in the hands of another director that description could be used to show the film in a negative light, however West’s direction brings to The Sacrament a touch of class rarely shown in found footage movies. Not only are the performances of A.J. Bowen and Gene Jones absolutely stellar, but the story is entirely believable. Other commentators have pointed out the undeniable similarities between the infamous Jonestown Massacre and The Sacrament, which, upon researching, seem to be more than poignant, however these parallels should take nothing away from how this movie is constructed.
From the outset you can feel a creeping dread hanging over the film, even when things appear to be going well for our protagonists. The silence seems deafening at points, especially as the film beginnings to ramp up towards the final act. The way West marries his use of silence with his camera, to dictate pacing in scenes, is extremely compelling; we are treated to static mid shots cut with frantic steadicam chase scenes that all feel very organic. One particular scene in the final act is framed beautifully despite its shocking content. We also get treated to “film school shots” but they never feel pretentious within the context of the film; instead it just appears that West knows exactly how to create mood with form.
Another aspect of the movie that is very politically relevant at the time that this review has been written, particularly in Britain, is the topic of religious fundamentalism and extremism. Both of these terms denote acts of brainwashing the vulnerable, which is a theme that runs thick in this film; long, compelling speeches from the mouth of “the Father” seem to have everyone hanging on his every word, which, in the climactic scenes, proves horrifying and chilling (I really cannot do justice to how brutal, yet real, the end of The Sacrament is).
Beyond what has been discussed, I think the similarities The Sacrament has to Jonestown will either put people off or drive them to learn more. I knew of the event by name but had no idea the history of Jim Jones, and I do feel West has made a film that will prove a gateway into further reading for a lot of people. As for West, I am in no doubt that this director will go on to make a serious name for himself, not only in the horror genre, but in film as a whole.