Ti West’s latest arrives on UK shores after a seemingly long delay and even then it’s been doomed to straight-to-video obscurity. And while this is the story for a slew of horror films – a genre which has embraced (out of necessity?) on-demand viewing formats – it seems a disservice to West, whose name has become synonymous with a sort of ‘new hope’ within the genre.
This sense of renewed spirit comes from a set of filmmakers cross-pollenating each others’ work. The V/H/S films could almost be seen as the recent core of this network of creative minds. From there you can spin out a web of diverse work in which a number of familiar faces recur. And while the edges of this pattern encompass the likes of Jason Eisner (Hobo With A Shotgun) and Gareth Evans (The Raid), its central grouping of actors and directors (Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, Ti West, AJ Bowen, Adam Wingard) could be seen almost like a modern-day ‘brat pack’ of horror filmmaking.
In this group West, championed by Eli Roth (whose seal of approval is likely to double a project’s reach), stands out for his more studied, patient, deliberate approach. His 2009 effort The House Of The Devil remains, for me, the best American horror film of the last decade or so, as much for its steely pacing as for the artistry apparent in its look and feeling. Follow-up The Innkeepers was a lesser, but still interesting affair, as he focused more on character than giving us the creeps.
And so to The Sacrament, which sees the director returning to the found footage sub-genre that he dabbled in for V/H/S. The very notion seems almost daring. One of West’s trademarks thus far has been his eye for a judiciously composed frame. The rough-n-ready approach that a wholly handheld film demands puts him outside of this comfort zone and, one would think, threatens to remove one of his key signatures.
Yet The Sacrament doesn’t feel anonymous.That studied, patient approach is still evident, and after a rocky opening, the film finds that familiar feeling of a Ti West production. In this film we follow Vice journalists Jake (Swanberg) and Sam (Bowen) as they journey to a remote religious commune called Eden Parish to help Patrick (Kentucky Audley) reunite with his sister Caroline (Seimetz).
On first sight this literal Eden in the forest may recall, for genre fans out there, the Filipino prisons of such 70’s exploitation flicks as The Big Bird Cage and The Big Doll House. You almost expect to see a 20-something Pam Grier burst out of one of the huts. However, as the film unfolds it becomes clear that West’s touchstone for this story is not based in fiction, but one based uncomfortably in fact. An infamous tragedy that caused headlines around the globe.
Eden Parish is the brainchild of a charismatic leader referred to as ‘Father’ (Gene Jones), and the film is at it’s best when playing on the viewer’s curiosity about the man. Jones is superb in the role. The movie’s centrepiece is a terrific interview sequence that takes place in the community’s open-air pavilion, as Sam tries to his best not to get swept up in the leader’s feel-good rhetoric.
West, now a pro at the slow-build, lays his groundwork well, seeding in plot points for later out of necessity, but with a comparatively light touch. The Sacrament largely plays as a straight-faced mystery rather than a horror. It’s entire first third takes place in sun-scorched daylight, with only little moments designed to unsettle. For a while, at least, the only threatening behaviour at Eden Parish comes from the viewer’s own paranoia.
However, as darkness descends, and once ‘Father’ has completed his interview, things begin to unravel. A little girl’s silent plea for help moves the film into it’s more propulsive second half. Cult-based movies of the past, along with the abhorrent artwork for the film’s UK release (a baffling choice when compared to the US design work) would lead us to suspect we’re heading toward some sort of blood sacrifice, that West might be inclined to repeat his gonzo finale from The House Of The Devil…
Where this is all actually headed has been documented in several other reviews and shyly hinted at above. Personally, I’m loathe to spoil too much. Yet the impact of the film’s final third is curiously off. More sobering than traditionally horrifying, The Sacrament finds itself in an unusual place; depicting a tragedy only to occasionally exploit it because, well, genre fans are expecting to see some violent images, right? It’s uneasy viewing, but not in a harrowing sense. Like West’s dire instalment in The ABCs of Death, The Sacrament suddenly dares to make entertainment out of something which offers no obvious appeal or thrills. The thrills we’re offered, therefore, feel awkwardly staged. Some elements here… just don’t sell themselves. The nature of the subject matter is inherently difficult. Perhaps the only way to go is over-the-top (as in Gareth Evans’ spectacular entry in V/H/S 2)?
There is, however, a fair amount to praise here. Performances sell much of the picture, and the aforementioned Jones and the consistently stellar Seimetz work wonders to sell the idea of Eden Parish. While even working roughshod, West still has a knack for composing a beautiful shot, crediting his characters with a level of professionalism (The Sacrament is one of the most aesthetically pleasing ‘mockumentary’ movies I’ve yet seen).
West has expressed his restlessness with horror recently, and his next film takes him to new shores (a Western is in the works). The Sacrament seems to signify this urge to tread new ground not only in its format, but in its sense of dalliance. It’s almost as if West himself isn’t wholly sold on the idea, or is impatient to get to the next phase of his career. It translates through the screen as a well produced, solidly acted and smartly directed film that doesn’t quite believe in itself.