A team of journalists (AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg) set out to document their friend’s (Kentucker Audley) journey to find his missing sister (Amy Seimetz). They travel to ‘Eden Parish,’ a self-sustained utopia. At the center of this small, religious, socialist community is a mysterious leader known only as ‘Father’ (Gene Jones). As their friend reunites with his sister, it becomes apparent to the newcomers that this paradise may not be as it seems. What started as just another documentary shoot soon becomes a race to escape with their lives. (From Magnet’s official synopsis)
Generally speaking, indie horror movie machine Ti West makes movies about nothing. He fills the screen with hours of hip, good-looking (mostly young and white) people (who we’re supposed to believe are unhip and unattractive) mumbling about everyday minor hardships. In most cases, he mixes this affection for nothingness with his affection for genre and does a bang-up job recreating the boring filler you remember from otherwise respectable horror movies. His protagonists are usually likable people, his in-jokes are pretty amusing, and his films look a lot nicer than the average ‘mumblecore’ offering, but I find the lack of content exhausting. Still, there is something respectable about the way West sticks to his formula and the obvious skill beneath the boring façade. My faith in his latest film, The Sacrament (2014), was not stoked by the knowledge that, on top of being a Ti West film, it would be yet another found-footage movie. The last time West tackled found footage, he made the single most inert and worthless chapter of the already lethargic V/H/S (2012).
His latest film, The Sacrament (2014), takes the best possible route with the found-footage format by mimicking the doomed documentary crew concept seen in Rugerro Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez’ The Blair Witch Project (1999). It’s not unique, but gives the film a built-in reason for its characters to be filming everything and continuing to film, despite their increasingly dire condition. In this case, it also offers West the chance to parody the typically self-aggrandizing, mock-socially active documentaries that have superceded the shockumentaries and human interest stories that Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project were aping. West’s screenplay incorporates obvious references to Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, aka: Jonestown. The Eli Roth ‘presented’ and Daniel Stamm directed Last Exorcism (2010) already covered similar ground (as did Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans’ V/H/S/2 short, Safe Haven), but no one has made a found-footage film of this particular travesty before. As a horror fan, I’m intrigued by the connection between Jonestown exploitation and ‘70s/’80s Italian horror movies, specifically Umberto Lenzi’s Magiati Vivi! (aka: Eaten Alive, 1980) – an Italian cannibal film that ties back into Cannibal Holocaust. I’m not sure if West was aware of the association, but I’m absolutely positive that ‘presenter’ Eli Roth was (all of these things played heavily into Roth’s own film, The Green Inferno, 2013).
Adherence to the mockumentary format seems to have reined in West’s obsession with listless dialogue. He’s all but forced to tighten the film down to its vital exposition while slowly burning genuine horror into the mix. The format also supplies the mumblecore-friendly cast (including Joe Swanberg, again) with a virtual playground to act as naturalistically awkward as possible. The best performance, however, is turned out by veteran Gene Jones (most readers will probably remember him as the gas station attendant forced to call heads or tails in No Country for Old Men), who captures the intensity and terrifying charm of the real Jim Jones without resorting to histrionics or blatant impersonation. All of this factors into The Sacrament being the best and most genuinely frightening film West has ever made and, hopefully, a sign of better things to come. Regrettably, my mileage as a viewer is somewhat limited by an unhealthy compulsion to watch any documentary on the Jonestown massacre. The events of the film follow the historical events closely enough that I was left with very few surprises until the final 15 or so minutes.
The Sacrament was shot using a myriad of digital formats and is presented here in 1080p, 1.85:1 HD video. Cinematographer Eric Robbins (who worked on West’s first feature, The Roost) adopts the rough look of shot-on-the-fly HD photography that isn’t purposefully ugly. Despite a smattering of digital grain, occasionally inconsistent clarity, and a handful of choppy artifacts, details are predominately tight and textures are complex. Edges are sometimes smoothed off by shallow focus and the gamma levels have been set for deep blacks and blown-out highlights, both of which are plenty clear. The digital noise does lead to quite a bit of discolorization among the more neutral hues, like skin tones, white walls, and concrete floors. Colors are amped up enough that the more vivid hues (fluorescent lights, the yellow sun, the lush, green forest surroundings) tend to bleed into the neutral colors as well, including some of the grayer nighttime sequences.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is naturalistic with very few directional enhancements and a strong focus on dialogue. Besides the occasional rumble of the camera’s mic being fondled and a couple of crowd scenes, the stereo and surround speakers are not artificially engaged by the effects. The dynamic balance is really impressive and sounds organic without being muffled or flat. The musical score, provided by Tyler Bates (who still takes the time to score low-budget horror between work for Marvel Studios), supports the mockumentary aspects perfectly with an infectiously dopey electronic underscore that builds into dark and droning melodies as the film turns bleak.
Commentary with West and actors AJ Bowen and Amy Seimetz
Creating The Sacrament: Revealing the Vision (21:10, HD) – A relatively in-depth (though substantially pretentious) behind-the-scenes featurette.
Working with the Director: The Ti West Experience (6:00, HD) – Featuring the cast and crew praising their director.
Preparing for Takeoff: Behind the Scenes Helicopter Sequence (4:50, HD)
AXS TV: A Look at The Sacrament (3:40, HD)
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