Thank god for Ti West. He is gradually building up a run of rock solid horror movies: The Nest, House of the Devil, The Innkeepers and now this. Okay Cabin Fever 2 sucked balls hard but then Cabin Fever 2 was always going to and even West agrees with that. He is also the king of the build up in horror movies. If you’ve seen The House of the Devil you will know that quite frankly nothing happens for the first hour or so, but all that nothing is so well constructed and is so intriguing that you know something WILL happen and when it does it will be worth the wait. The Innkeepers does much the same, not quite so successfully but the characters are so adorable you won’t care. That’s another great thing about West, he creates characters in his movies that you actually care about, or at least can relate to, so when the shit finally hits the fan you are completely invested in their fates. I know I’ve ranted about this before so forgive me but why won’t other horror film makers learn this lesson? We don’t just want fodder for the meat grinder, we want fully rounded characters that we can recognise and understand… as fodder for the meat grinder.
The Sacrament continues West’s winning streak. For a good deal of the film, although a lot more happens than some of his earlier films, it doesn’t feel like a horror movie at all. In fact maybe in someways it isn’t part of our favourite genre at all but just a recreation of the Jonestown Massacre. Although let’s face it, that was one of the most horrific things to happen last century in a mountain of lots of horrible things so yeah, okay, this is still a horror film.
We follow Patrick (Kentucky Audley) as he attempts to hunt down his missing sister who has gone off to help start a new community in a hidden part of some undisclosed part of the world. And when I say community I mean cult and when I say undisclosed part of the world I mean Savannah, Georgia (although I think its meant to be central America). Also when I say we follow, I literally mean we follow as Sam has a small documentary team with him, and that means we are pretty much in the Found Footage sub genre which everyone on the planet earth is now sick to death of.
Fortunately,the documentary-style means we aren’t entirely caught in the why-are-you-still-filming!?!?! cliches that drag down most FFMs. Also it looks pretty, and is pretty tense so I’ll let them off. The fact that a documentary team wants to film this secret cult means that there is automatically going to be tension between our protagonists and their subjects. Secret cults are secret for a reason, and the more people come up to the crew and tell them “we have nothing to hide” the more you know they sure as well do have something to hide.
Of course when our team first arrive at the community, apart from the armed guards, everyone is pretty friendly, especially Patrick’s sister who is overwhelmed with holy joy to see her brother. The documentary team following him, not so much. Especially Sam (A.J. Bowen) who is like a dog on a sniff for a bone. Bowen can barely contain his mistrust for this bunch of religious freaks and is determined to find out what they are doing wrong even if there is a possibility that all they really want to do is live peacefully away from the rest of society. “I’m gonna hit him” Sam tells Jake the cameraman about his up and coming interview with the church leader. Being inside a cult’s camp in the middle of nowhere surrounded by rifle-toting soldiers, it would seem like a bad idea to verbally attack and embarrass some one who everyone else thinks is a God-on-Earth, but Sam cannot stop himself.
Of course none of this would work if the leader wasn’t up to much cop and it’s a long, long time before we even meet “Father”. Then when we first see him its a surprise. He’s not a young David Koresh type handsome and charismatic man but a much older, well-worn figure played by late-to-film character actor Gene Jones. What Jones brings so vividly to life is how his ignorant flock will follow pretty much anything he says as long as he says it with conviction and the good lord behind him. Its like the tea party in a microcosm. The central confrontation between Jones and Bowen is an interview Bowen conducts with Father in front of his congregation. Here, Jones really is mesmerizingly believable as this leader of sheep, he licks and smacks his lips like the big bad wolf as the tension rises between the two men. Its a great acting showpiece for everyone involved, developing the characters, the mood and setting the scenes for the horrors to come.
After this there really is no where to go but to hell-on-earth. I won’t say what happens but if you know how most cults pan out then its not far from that, but with some extra horrific asides. And that is the main problem, in fact the only problem with The Sacrament. The story is very familiar. Its not like this story has been made into a film many times before but it does feel so familiar from the news and from history that it feels a little bit predictable and like we have already seen this before, even if we haven’t.
But that would be to ignore the great performances, the gripping tension and Ti West’s ability to tell a story very well and only need an hour and a half to do so. His next film sees West moving away from the horror genre, towards something with a decent budget and actual stars, well John Travolta anyway. I hope he can transfer his skills to other genres (in this case the western) and I hope he’ll be back with us again soon.