It always frustrates me, as a horror fan, when a crappy new movie hits the theaters and everyone says things like “the horror genre is dead,” or “horror movies aren’t what they used to be.” Both of these statements couldn’t possibly be further from the truth, not in the present time and quite frankly not ever.
Sure, it may seem that way if all you’re watching is theatrical horror, but as anyone who spends more time on their couch renting movies On Demand than they do sitting in a theater and watching the next money-making generic horror movie can attest, the horror genre is not only alive and well right now, but it’s thriving. And if you need any proof of that, look no further than The Sacrament.
The latest film from Ti West, who has done nothing but impress with previous efforts like House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, The Sacrament – produced by Eli Roth – hit VOD outlets this week, after scooping up high praise and critical acclaim on the festival circuit.
Inspired by the infamous Jonestown Massacre of 1978, where cult leader Jim Jones coerced nearly 1,000 of his followers into taking their own lives, the film centers on the employees of a media outlet who travel to a remote commune called Eden Parish, intent on documenting what’s really going on in the supposed ‘paradise.’ While at first everyone seems happy and at peace, including photographer Patrick’s sister Caroline – whose letter to him led to the group making the trek – it soon becomes clear that something sinister lurks beneath the facade of happiness, non-violence and peaceful living. Too good to be true? Yea, you could say that.
Whenever I read a review of a Ti West film, it’s pretty much a given that at some point my eyes are going to scan past the words ‘slow burn’ – I admit, my reviews of both House of the Devil and The Innkeepers contained that very same grouping of words. West has proven himself time and time again to be the master of this so-called slow burn approach to filmmaking, which essentially is just pretentious movie reviewer lingo for ‘the dude knows how to tell a really good story.’ And if you’re asking me, The Sacrament is to date the best story he’s ever told.
When I say that you could’ve walked a giant pink elephant into my living room earlier today, at any given point while I was watching The Sacrament, and my eyes still would’ve remain locked on the TV, I’m probably exaggerating. At least a tiny bit. But I’m not exaggerating in the least when I say that The Sacrament is one of the most gripping horror films to come along in recent years, as well as one of the most truly horrifying horror films that this jaded horror fan has ever seen.
I’ve never been big into movies about things like demonic possession and paranormal entities, because I’m just not all that much of a believer in that sort of stuff, and so those kinds of movies never really succeed in scaring me. What I do believe in, and what truly does terrify me, is the evil that us human beings are capable of, and The Sacrament is about as horrifying a descent into the darkness of man that’s ever been committed to celluloid.
Before anything even happens, West imbues the proceedings with an atmosphere thick with dread, as we of course know that Eden Parish is far from the paradise that the protagonists are hoping that it is, in the same way those of us who watch The Walking Dead knew that Terminus wasn’t going to turn out to be any sort of safe haven. And like the masterful storyteller that he is, West takes his sweet time in setting the stage before the shit hits the fan, letting us breathe in that dread-filled air for an almost unbearable amount of time, before the Kool-Aid starts flowing and the bullets start flying. I’m not going to claim it’s an enjoyable experience, but goddamn is it effective. And isn’t horror at its best when it’s horrifying, rather than fun to watch?
Yes, the film is presented in that POV ‘found footage’ style that we’re all so sick of, but please don’t let that turn you off in any way. The Sacrament serves as a much needed reminder that the found footage style is actually an incredibly effective way to tell a story, when it’s used to tell the stories that it should be used to tell, and this is indeed one of those stories that there really wasn’t any other way to tell. When used properly, the POV presentation really immerses you in what’s going on, and what the characters are experiencing, and you can trust me when I say that West uses it here to enhance the story, rather than tossing it into the proceedings as a cheap gimmick.
The performances all around are incredibly solid, with genre faves AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg once again reminding us all why they’re so popular and beloved on social media, and why horror filmmakers keep casting them in their movies. Not only are they great actors but they’re also likeable guys, and that’s such a crucial element of the film, given that the story is being told from their perspective. It also doesn’t hurt matters any that they have such a great rapport, after having worked together a few times in the past.
But the star of the show here is without question Gene Jones, who plays the leader of the not so idyllic commune. Referred to by his followers simply as Father, the character is one of the most memorably terrifying bad guys in the genre’s recent past, right up there with Red State‘s Abin Cooper (portrayed by the always fantastic Michael Parks). Father is terrifying in that Charles Manson sort of way, in the sense that you know he’s not just capable of extreme evil himself, but that he talks such a good game that you believe he’s just as capable of making others carry out his dirty deeds for him.
And that right there is what’s so terrifying about the film, as a whole; it’s so completely believable, because this kind of thing actually happens. Though it’s of course only a movie, The Sacrament makes you think about the real event that it was inspired by, and it really makes you realize how easy it is for one well-spoken man to pray on impressionable people, and sell them on doing horrible things. Everything from the Manson family murders to Adolf Hitler’s reign of terror comes to mind, and by tapping into that very real darkness of humanity, West has come out the other end with a horror film that truly earns its genre classification. This, right here, is true horror, and I can promise you will be chilled to the core when all is said and done.
With The Sacrament, Ti West has once again proven that he’s one of the best things the horror genre has currently got going for it, and I again must reiterate that I feel this is his best work to date. If you think ‘horror is dead,’ all I ask is that you watch this movie, and then let me know if you still feel the same way.
Horror is far from dead, my friends. You’re just going to have to start looking outside of the theater to find it. And you can begin your journey with The Sacrament.