Ti West has been on the horror radar for a while now. While his 2005 The Roost gained some traction, it was 2009’s throwback Satanic Panic film, The House of the Devil that put West on the map. His follow-up The Innkeepers was considered one of the best of 2011, and his involvement with V/H/S and The ABCs of Death made it known that West is a force within independent horror. The Sacrament, like his projects before it, only heighten this knowledge that West is one of the more exciting voices of indie horror. A lot of his films have familiar themes (Satan worshipers, teen babysitters, haunted hotels, ghost hunters, found footage and now a Jonestown-esque cult), but none of them ever seem to trap themselves in genre cliches or redundancy.
Ti West’s The Sacrament follows Patrick (Kentucker Audley) and his documentarian friends Sam and Jake (AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg) as they travel to meet up with Patrick’s sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) who is living in a remote location called Eden Parish. Wary of Caroline’s new-found lifestyle, Patrick and crew travel to Eden Parish to find out what it’s all about, and they discover a whole community people living on this handmade compound under the jurisdiction of Father (Gene Jones).
First and foremost, the film is smart, and there are so many big examples of this. Instead of “found footage” meaning shaky camera with no focus and a contrived sense of what is shown; it means a documentary crew with appropriate equipment, knowledge of how to use it, and with a sole purpose to document their trip. Instead of casting AJ Bowen in his normal antagonist(ish) role, Bowen is cast as a guy just trying to figure out what the hell is going on. And probably most importantly, instead of just retelling the story of Jonestown, West only uses the essence of the event to tell a new story. There are the obvious similarities to the event and the idea of Jonestown is the basis for Eden Parish, but if you go in thinking the film is just a retelling of that event, then you’re setting yourself up for failure. I went into the assuming such and came out initially disappointed, but then extremely satisfied. It’s funny that I’m writing all about the film because if you were to ask me in person about whether you should see the The Sacrament, I’d tell you, “Yes, but don’t read too much about it.” But I know that people need convincing.
The Sacrament is a heavy flick. The subject matter is (obviously) rough. But the film is great in that it doesn’t solely rest upon the idea of this cult. Eden Parish is designed to feel both safe and claustrophobic, making it easy to navigate the range of emotions through the film. And the performances are spot-on which helps as well. Gene Jones is a beast, and AJ Bowen is the best he’s been. The film is clear and concise, which helps us follow the story and the characters without hesitation. During a Monday night screening of the film at AFI Fest, Ti West said that he wrote the film in the voice of the actors he cast, so it was just as much a collaboration between actor(s) and director as it was just solid writing. Again, West’s basis of the film was Jonestown but he made the horrific story of that event hold the same terrible feelings without making a docudrama. The Sacrament IS NOT a docudrama. The emotions evoked are raw and unfiltered because the film is just that, too. There certainly aren’t any frills in the film, the film within the film, or in the environment the characters are placed in/inhabiting.
Overall, The Sacrament is one intense and dark but exciting flick. In a sea of horror movies that are built on cliches and “norms,” The Sacrament only uses those conventions as a foundation to build and improve upon. It won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s one hell of a movie.