Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil, Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, AJ Bowen, Gene Jones, Kentucky Audley
Writer/director Ti West is quickly becoming one of the biggest faces in modern horror thanks to his success with House of the Devil and V/H/S. He’s quickly established his roots as a filmmaker who covers the real horrors such as cults, stalkers, and lunatics that haunt our everyday world. His latest film The Sacrament is taking a very different look at cults by showing us the lighter side of the groupthink that attracts followers in the first place. Does The Sacrament deliver a new take on an already saturated horror subject or is Ti West sticking it a little close to his comfort zone?
The Sacrament follows two investigative journalists and a fashion photographer who want to tell the story of a commune named Eden Parish. Patrick is a photographer(Kentucker Audley) who connects with the commune through his sister Caroline(Amy Seimetz) and brings his friends Sam(AJ Bowen) and Jake(Joe Swanberg) along to tell the inside story. After the initial tour, the trio seem impressed with the serenity and happiness of all of the residents. As the two journalists begin to dig deeper they start find that the utopia isn’t all it seems to be. The group grows increasingly suspicious when the Eden Parish founder and religious leader “Father”(Gene Jones) conducts and interview and wows the crowds with his surprising intelligence and flawless charisma. The deeper the trio get, the darker and more dangerous the mystery becomes.
This movie is giving us a rare look at the more interesting aspect of cults that is seldom explored on the big screen. Tie West tackles the interesting ideas of groupthink, security, belonging, and charismatic leaders that draw people to such dangerous groups. We are taken inside the hearts and minds of the followers by examining the appeal such a dangerous group could have for people who have faced desperation. Members of Eden Parish are painted as people who have found the new life and purpose many of us seek in our every day life. The cult in this movie explores the more horrifying reality that traditional Hollywood stereotypes have never quite captured. Cults aren’t made up of crazies who want to burn heathens at the stake, but are actually people so desperate for acceptance and a better life that they are willing to trade just about anything including their own free will.
The movie is told as a docudrama with the setting being established almost entirely through on screen expositional text. The story is presented through two different cameras so that the film has a more personalized and guerrilla feel. Once the film got going I was completely mesmerized and swept away by the technique, but I found the titles that bookended film actually took away from the overall immersion and seamless feel that the rest of the storytelling provided. Expositional titles may be necessary, but I could never really shake the feeling that the story could have been introduced more organically on camera. The film may use shaky cam and plenty of other found footage style tropes, but the story was so tight, engaging, and full of suspense that I was immediately lost in the story of impending terror.
This film is immaculately structured with the first act taking up nearly half of the film and the last two acts quickly snowballing the fright and panic in some powerfully impactful ways. This film doesn’t really fall in line with other horror movies, but is actually told like a more traditional drama that happens to use non-traditonal techniques. Despite the blurry genre lines, this movie delivers horrific truths that had me in constant shock and awe throughout the last half an hour of the film. There are many powerful images in the finale that will be forever burned into my memory. I walked away completely unnerved as I reflected on the possibility of such dark and tragic events (the movie is inspired and heavily influenced by the true events of the 1978 Jonestown Massacre) that could easily repeat themselves in our world today.
The cast all deliver solid performances with the exception of Gene Jones who is something truly chilling as the cult leader “Father”. His character is smart, filled with charisma, and surprisingly believable. He’s a psychopathic madman disguised as a genius who is trying to protect his flock. The film is strong in its own right, but Gene Jones really elevates the horror and suspense with his arguably iconic performance.
The Sacrament is Ti West’s most powerful and horrifying film to date. There are a number of times the movie demands extra suspension of disbelief and not all the questions are answered, but when this movie is examining the culture of the cult, its charismatic leader, and the eerie appeal of it all, the film delivers something so dark and shocking that you’ll be hard pressed to find something more horrifying this year. If you can look past a few minor shortcomings, you’re in for something really special. The Sacrament is an essential 2014 film for horror fans and a movie that that I’d highly recommend for film goers interested in cults and religious fanaticism.