16. The Sacrament
Director: Ti West
You don't need ghosts, serial killers, or skyscraper-sized monsters to make a horror movie. Sometimes, all it takes is a little manmade evil.
Within the independent film community, Ti West is one of horror's most respected princes, if you will-not quite a king yet, but regarded with high enough critical acclaim and respect from his peers to give him a special distinction. His strong reputation stems largely from The House of the Devil, the lo-fi 2009 throwback to the widespread Satanism that bubbled underneath the surface in small-town America. Patiently building its tensity, a la old-school Roman Polanski, and climaxing in a round of ghoulish mayhem that owes a great debt to '70s Italian genre moviemaking, The House of the Devil holds up as one of the new millennium's best horror films-it's the kind of show-and-prove calling card that DIY horror directors would kill for. Last year, West followed that universally embraced chiller with the lighter, Ghostbusters-like The Innkeepers, a character-powered little ghost tale that's inferior to The House of the Devil yet still exhibits West's penchants for nuanced screenwriting, multilayered characters, and getting impressive acting performances from his cast.
But both films share an intimacy that, for some, could be viewed as a drawback for West's potential-they're one-location chamber pieces, limited to three characters or less and making the most of contained settings. Perhaps directly motivated to obliterate that conception, West's latest, The Sacrament, is a giant leap forward both stylistically and in scope. Gone are the closed-door locales and the one-on-one dialogue; here, West has gone outdoors, to the vast, wide open landscape occupied by Eden Parish, a Jonestown-like commune overseen by an enigmatic and charismatic elder known as Father (played by Gene Jones). With scaled-back, rural amenities, Eden Parish is an agricultural haven for Father's followers, an ethnically and age-wise mixed group of lost souls who've forfeited their finances in order to turn their new isolated, tropical homeland into a thriving community.
Be warned, though: Yes, The Sacrament is yet another first-person POV film, which some would dub as "found-footage" but, since we never see anyone actually find the footage in such movies, let's do our best to eradicate that term, shall we? Having dabbled in the format for his segment in last year's V/H/S anthology, West doesn't lazily mimic his POV predecessors' mistakes. For one, there's a believable reason for the cameras to be present in the first place. Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) work for the hipster-friendly media company Vice, for which they travel the world reporting on odd news stories documentary style. They've traveled to Eden Parish thanks to photographer friend Patrick (Kentucker Audley), whose sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), lives amongst Father's minions and has sent him a letter inviting him to visit.
Naturally, he brings his filmmaking pals along with him, and at first, The Sacrament casually establishes life in the commune through informational Q&As with various members. West never lies about what's really going on, though-composer Tyler Bates' ominous score sets up an initial dread that carries through to the film's midway shift into darkness, triggered by a little, non-talkative girl who approaches Sam with a cryptic note. As Bates' music has made clear, something's wrong with Eden Parish, particularly with Father. As inhabited by Jones (whom eagle-eyed viewers will recognize as Javier Bardem's coin-tossing co-star in one of No Country for Old Men's best scenes), Father initially comes off as a grandfatherly leader with a gentle, even huggable approachability, but in The Sacrament's best scene, he flips the switch. Seated on a stage, in front of his entire community, Father grants an in-over-his-head Sam an interview that, like a true cult master, Father brilliantly manipulates. It's the exact point when The Sacrament veers into first-rate psychological unease, and it's masterfully handled by Jones.
It's also, however, one of many nods toward West's chief inspiration here: Jim Jones and Jonestown. Without giving too much away, let's just say that, for anyone who's knowledgeable about that infamous late 1970s cult and how it tragically ended, The Sacrament holds little in the way of third-act surprises. West doesn't so much draw influences from Jonestown as fictionalize it in almost too honorable fashion. The Sacrament might as well open with a "based on a true story" title card. What West is able to pull off during the film's latter section is skillfully disturbing, but there's a slightly disappointing lack of originality at play. Worse than that is one particular moment where the, cringe, found-footage aesthetic gets betrayed, with a second but inexplicably retained camera capturing a pivotal scene for what's overall posited as a Vice special. To elaborate would mean spoiler time, but you'll know the slip-up when you see it. It's unfortunately distracting.
One conceptual error can't derail the entire show here, thankfully, and by the end of The Sacrament, its emotional impact and visceral force are resonantly palpable. There are plenty of beasts, creatures, and other grotesqueries marauding the Fantastic Fest screens here in Austin, TX, but West has one-upped them all in the most bleakly human of ways: by creating real-life, man's-heart-of-darkness horror. —MB