R, 95 min.
Director/Writer: Ti West
Starring: AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, Kentucker Audley, Kate Lyn Sheil, Gene Jones
It’s true. Since “The Blair Witch Project” popularized the found footage horror subgenre, it has been done to death. And that’s putting it lightly considering the past few years. Found footage has even found its way into family films, like this past summer’s “Earth to Echo”. I can’t for the life of me figure out why an already established and quite impressive horror director like Ti West would be inspired to make a found footage movie, but with his latest, “The Sacrament”, he puts in his bid on the horse-beaten gimmick.
That being said, West makes a pretty good found footage flick here. I think the gimmick gets in the way of the power of the piece, but enough of the thematic effect gets past the restrictions of the style to make it worth watching. In fact, the subject and suspense of the film is so well handled that I’d be singing some really vibrant praises were it not for the stylistic flat note here.
Through title cards we are given information about a news organization known as Vice, that digs into the dirt not covered by bigger news companies. They’ve been approached by a man who received a strange letter from his sister, which explained how she found a recovery group that helped her through her drug addiction and that she has sold all her Earthly possessions and has moved out of the country with them. She invites her brother to come and join the truly free society they are building. Accessible only by helicopter the Vice team agrees to send a cameraman and reporter with the man to rescue his sister from the reclusive religious commune.
Borrowing heavily from the real life events of the Jonestown Massacre of 1978, West does a good job pulling the audience into the tension of the plot with a frightening initial contact with the commune outside the compound. Once inside, however, the film crew finds a surprisingly convincing lifestyle that is hard to argue against. Expecting resistance to their presence, they find they are welcomed with open arms. They are even awarded an interview with the group’s enigmatic leader, Father, played as a pitch perfect Evangelist by Gene Jones.
It is at the interview where the mood turns, however, more so for the audience than the characters. The interview is a masterpiece of dialogue and hiding meanings beneath the meanings. Watch carefully as Father ever so subtly threatens the interviewer’s wife and unborn child with a smile on his face. The interviewer isn’t even sure what happened. He’s still surprised to find himself on board with this commune thing—not for him, but he’s willing to admit it sounds like an ideal life. Then, a mute girl approaches the filmmakers and everything turns very dark very quickly.
Even with the restriction of coming up with excuses to have the camera running during vital moments of revelation and suspense, West does a great job building the suspense at a minimal rate to an excruciating boil by the time Father orders his followers to take their own lives. West is under no illusions that everyone is willing to just lay down their lives and those of their children just because they’ve spoken of such commitment when Father queues them to. It’s a really horrific realization of how such a mass suicide might go down. It ain’t pretty.