Before you smack your forehead and groan with pained, existential despair at the sight of a new found-footage horror movie, an oft-exploited sub-genre of horror that spawned undying film franchises, let’s make it all clear that Ti West’s latest The Sacrament technically does not belong to this school of low-rent, manipulative filmmaking. That’s because West is a far classier director to bow down to obscenely cash-grabbing exercises of Paranormal Activity and [Rec], both of which make you wish their mothership The Blair Witch Project didn’t exist in the first place and give birth to ugly, undignified fetuses. West himself establishes that The Sacrament is a faux-documentary (despite what Wikipedia are telling us), and it’s obvious in the film’s first few minutes: we are told that Vice, paragon of new-media hipster journalism, have sent three dudes to investigate the operations of
Jonestown Eden Parish, an isolated cult commune in the tropics that could be easily identified as Guyana in South America. It comes to no surprise that this is an overt depiction of the 1978 Jonestown massacre, a gruesome, headline-grabbing event that West milks the macabre terror in exhaustive, shaky-cam detail.
Anyone who has seen West’s terrific previous efforts House of the Devil and The Innkeepers would know that his brand of horror leans more to the classical Kubrickian or Carpenter approach, where misé-en-scene and narrative build-up are prioritised over visceral shocks. The Sacrament is at its best when West applies that principle, slowly unravelling the mystery behind this secretive cult without seeming to rush into ghoulish theatrics. It’s no surprise that the film’s finest sequence involves no chases, no lung-busting banshee shrieks and cheap grindhouse scare tactics – but rather the plain sight of the commune’s Father (an oleaginous yet fiercely articulate, Machiavellian turn by Gene Jones) being interviewed by AJ Bowen’s run-of-the-mill journalist Sam in front of the frenzied cult followers. It demonstrates West’s fine skill as a writer, painting none of the supposed villains of the piece in dour contrasts. Jones’ Father could’ve easily been turned into a monodimensional megalomaniac, spitting words as if it were a church pulpit, but this character is given so much complexity that roughly 60% of the zeitgeisty things that come out of this man’s mouth, you’ll be hard pressed not to nod and agree. This Father is, basically, the resulting specimen if you put John Goodman, Slavoj Žižek and Colonel Walter Kurtz from Apocalypse Now in a laboratory and splice their DNAs together. There’s darkness there, but also undeniable intelligence.
It’s only when West sacrifices narrative to accommodate the vagaries of the pseudo-documentary technique that The Sacrament stumbles into shamelessly contrived, well-tread grounds. For a film that goes through deliberate lengths to set-up the verité style, it flouts its own established rules halfway through when the need to change perspectives arise. The film loses its sense of angular subjectivity when the camera shifts gears – at one point, brainwashed sister Caroline (a terrific Amy Smeitz, she in Upstream Colour) picks up the camera to show the world what’s really happening inside the Parish when ten minutes ago, she and her adopted patriarchy launched a diatribe against media coverage. Contradiction, much? And obviously, somebody needs to survive the ordeal to hand the footage to the editors back in New York to glue this shit together, otherwise it’s Blair Witch territory all over again. That remains a nagging thought throughout the climactic scenes of The Sacrament, that despite you’re watching an undeniably horrific, near-apocalyptic mass suicide, your mind relentlessly questions every camera trick and POV shifts West employs, distracting you from fully experiencing the monstrosity unfolding onscreen. As a dark portrait of religious fanaticism, it’s complex and fascinating, but you’d wish somehow that West should have dropped the dog tricks and told this in the classical style he’s been perfecting for years.