A newsteam trails a man as he travels to an undisclosed location to find his missing sister. Upon entering “Eden Parish” and meeting the community’s leader, it becomes apparent to the newcomers that this paradise may not be as it seems.
Young director Ti West has come a long way and has built up quite a reputation in the years since his first feature he directed, The Roost (2005) was released. He’s built up a really nice list of credits for himself with films like House Of The Devil (2009), Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009) & The Innkeepers (2011). His films, while taking place in the present, feel rooted in the 70’s and for people like myself who have a affinity for films of that decade, his films are rather special. It’s no surprise that his latest film, The Sacrament, also has that special 70’s aura to it. It’s also based on one of the great tragedies of that decade, the mass suicide at the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project AKA Jonestown. On November 18th, 1978, a total of 909 temple members died there, all but two from cyanide poisoning. This heinous act was performed under the watchful eyes of lunatic cult leader Jim Jones, who called the act a “Revolutionary Suicide” in audio tapes that were recovered at the scene. As a matter of fact, the mass suicide at Jonestown (In Guyana) was the single largest loss of American civilians in a deliberate act until the tragedy that took place in NYC on September 11th, 2001. It’s also been the subject of a lurid potboiler, director Rene Cardona Jr’s Guyana: Cult Of The Damned (1979). Loosely based on the Jonestown massacre, it starred Stuart Whitman as Reverend James Johnson, who also led his devotees to kill themselves.
The scenario presented in The Sacrament is very familiar with the Guyana tragedy and all involved. Patrick (Kentucker Audley) is looking for his sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz) who he hasn’t heard from in a long while. He finds out that she’s taken up residence with a cult known as Eden Parrish, led by a messianic (but seemingly benevolent) man only known as “Father” (Gene Jones). Patrick enlists his friends Sam (AJ Bowen) & Jake (Joe Swanberg) to accompany him to the Eden Parrish compound, which is located somewhere in the Caribbean. Both Sam & Jake work for a program known as VICE, that focuses on issues in third world countries. Jake is a cameraman and the idea is to find Caroline & ensure that she’s not being held against her will and record some footage of the compound and the cultists that live there. Director West (who also scripted) smartly gets the tension rising straight away when the trio arrive at the compound by helicopter & are greeted by men with machine guns warning them to turn off the camera immediately. The only way to reach the island is by helicopter and once there, they discover that there’s only one road leading to Eden Parrish. One way in – one way out.
Since the film is essentially another example of a found footage film, West had to figure out a way to have Jake’s camera always shooting film. This has been an issue that’s weighed down many films in the found footage genre and while making Jake a cameraman gives him a reason to have his camera running all of the time there are still plenty of shots in the film that are cut in a manner that doesn’t really make much sense or are seemingly shot from cameras that shouldn’t exist. Interestingly enough, this doesn’t really hurt The Sacrament too much because the inclusion of such scenes make it a much more immersive experience. It’s a lot easier to accept the inclusion of these shots since the film does such a great job of convincing its audience that what they’re watching is real and not staged. That being said, some of the more egregious shots did make me scratch my temple and mutter to myself “Wha…?”.
West has gathered a really good cast for his film. It’s almost a You’re Next reunion since Bowen, Seimetz, Swanberg & West (who appeared in a small role) all had parts in that film. Although it’s Patrick who initiates the action in the film, the lead character is Sam and Bowen does a great job in the role as a guy who really just wants to go home, but finds that his compassion for the people living at the commune is holding him back just a bit more than he’s like to admit. Swanberg isn’t seen too much in the first half of the film (He’s the cameraman, remember?) but his role does get exponentially bigger in the 2nd half. Audley does the best that he can with his role, but I found his part to be slightly underwritten. Seimetz is a pro and she’s very good as Caroline but the big revelation here is Jones as “Father”. Initially he’s as warm & loving as a teddy bear but Jones slowly lets the megalomaniac in the character seep through. His initial benevolence belies the seething evil lurking just beneath the surface and Jones does an exemplary job of meting that evil out slowly, almost imperceptably – until it’s way too late. One glaring mistake is the fact that not much time is spent with other members of the cult. There is some initial communication with other members of the commune, but not much and as the film proceeds, not much time is spent with anyone but the 5 main characters. I think if West had taken the time to write in some other cult members and flesh out their stories, then the film might’ve taken a different course and brought it’s audience closer to the tragedy that’s coming.
If you’re at all familiar with the Jonestown tragedy, then you already know how The Sacrament is gonna play out, and that’s a big problem. I had a feeling of “Been There, Done That” throughout the film that kept me outside of its bubble. Don’t mistake this for it being a bad film though, because it’s actually quite good. It looks great, maintains a palpable sense of dread throughout its running time & is very well essayed by a fine cadre of actors. But it felt like I’d seen it before and quite frankly I had since I’m very familiar with the 1979 version and the made for TV version of the story as well. In other words, West didn’t do enough to change the circumstances behind the story to make it feel new to me. This isn’t to say that today’s audience won’t dig it though, especially those of you who were born in the 80’s and beyond.
So while the story behind The Sacrament is indeed compelling, it isn’t especially new or different. And while it’s being promoted as a horror film, it most definitely isn’t. The situation is a horrible one indeed and the story is one that some might find frightening, but none of it is particularly scary – It’s more of a thriller with dramatic elements. It’s also gonna be compared with last year’s Safe Haven (One of the stories from last year’s V/H/S/ 2) which isn’t fair because that was indeed a horror film with supernatural elements and this one isn’t. But the comparisons are likely because of the way The Sacrament is being promoted.
Overall, I really liked The Sacrament enough to recommend it, but I have to wonder why West decided to make it his next feature after The Innkeepers, which was an inspired (& creepy) little ghost story that spooked audiences worldwide a few years ago. If nothing else, it’s a fine example of his growth as a filmmaker and its overall quality promises that West is indeed a filmmaker to keep a very close eye on. But it wasn’t the film I expected to see from him and it suffers in my eyes because of that.
The Sacrament opens in select theaters & VOD on Friday, June 6th.
The Sacrament – 3 out of 5 shrouds.