Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
The film I’m reviewing opens in wide release on May 1st. This is an early review, having seen the film screened at the Little Rock Horror Picture Show.
What really goes on in a seemingly-peaceful religious commune? Every time a horror film wants to ask that question, you know that something has to go wrong and nothing is going to end peacefully. But what really surprised me about “The Sacrament” was that even though I knew something bad was going to happen, I couldn’t guess exactly what it was or when it would happen.
And why would it happen? That’s another strength of “The Sacrament,” which is the latest horror film by Ti West, who is a top-notch name in the modern-horror film genre right now, following the terrific “The House of the Devil” and “The Innkeepers.” West is known for his effective setups. Slowly but surely, something will happen, and we’re just waiting for it to come; then when it does happen, we’re on edge, very unnerved by what we’ve been waiting for. “The Sacrament” has a payoff I can use as a great example, because the film’s final half-hour or so is so tense and horrifying that it made my stomach turn and my throat tight.
I hope I’m not giving this film too much buildup by saying that it’s unbelievably suspenseful. I’m going out on a limb by saying that “The Sacrament” may be West’s most accomplished film because I was more scared by the final act of this film than I was by the basement scene in “The Innkeepers” or the big reveal in “The House of the Devil.”
It’s funny because I wasn’t sure what to expect from this film when I heard that it was using the “found-footage” approach and featured the dark goings-on of a mysterious Christian commune. But West knows how to put his spin on familiar elements and make them effectively scary. I know I said this already in my “Innkeepers” review, but I’ll say it again. “Ti West is the new king of horror.”
All it takes is a little patience from the audience to get to that final act. If they’ll accept the long time it takes to get to the ultimate payoff, it’ll prove to be even more satisfying when it comes. The story is about a trio of investigative journalists who check out a rural, secretive Christian commune, where one of the journalists has a sister who has led a formerly dead-end life and may or may not need to be picked up from this place. Together, reporter Sam (AJ Bowen), videographer Jake (Joe Swanberg), and photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) take a trip to document and expose the commune, which is called Eden Parish. They’re not met with warm welcomes, as gun-toting security guards give them a hard time before accepting them inside. But as they look around the place, they find it’s weird but peaceful. Patrick’s sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), is perfectly happy here and doesn’t want or need to leave. And that’s how most of the locals they interview seem to feel; most of them have led tough lives in the past before being comfortable and happy here.
When they interview the leader of the “paradise-on-Earth,” simply known as “Father” (Gene Jones)…actually, that’s enough of the synopsis I’m going to write about right there. That’s the buildup, and there’s more to come before the aforementioned tense payoff, but there you go. The film takes its time to let us get a great sense of the environment these people are in, so we can ask how can something possibly go wrong in a place like this? (I mean, aside from the not-especially-warm welcoming and the creepy little girl that constantly stares at the newcomers…don’t ask.) It fooled me, delighted me, and then…it horrified me. There were times in the final act of “The Sacrament” where I could hardly move because I couldn’t believe just what the hell was going on.
The film is told in the style of a documentary, with time-updates, texts explaining some background, and even some music to give us the sense that something is wrong. While this is effective for the most part, as “found-footage” films can create efficiently disturbing moments in its simplicity and “first-person” camerawork (and can create some clever editing in certain scenes), it doesn’t succeed as a whole. First and foremost is the tense music score that appears often; granted, it seems like what a VICE documentary would use to get its point across, but it’s not subtle and come sometimes be annoying rather than frightening. And this is probably just a nitpick, but I never like in some of the films that use the usual first-person camera gimmick, there are shots that the person (or character) filming shouldn’t be able to get on the fly. Even when the characters get to use a second camera, it still manages to cheat.
That aside, the gimmick does work. The editing works, there are some original touches (such as one shot that tricks as to where the camera is and where the camera operator is), there’s a credible reason as to why these journalists would keep filming everything but not focusing entirely on how each shot looks as they run for their lives, and it makes moments more unsettling.
“Found-footage films” rely on convincing acting, and “The Sacrament” has some likable performers to follow. Joe Swanberg adds more personality to a role that could have been thankless; AJ Bowen is suitably cocky and narcissistic as the reporter who subtly tries to figure out the deal behind the commune; and Gene Jones is perfectly cast as insightful, mysterious, no-nonsense Father in a deeply unnerving performance. Michael Parks’ psychotic preacher in Kevin Smith’s “Red State” has nothing on this guy.
I can’t say anymore about “The Sacrament” except that it can be seen in two different ways—one is alone, the other is with an audience. Watching it alone can make for a tense experience; watching it with a packed audience (on a weekend night) can be enjoyable because the film can get specific reactions at specific moments. Either way, it’s an edgy, very scary horror film that shows once again why Ti West is one of the best people working in this genre nowadays.