Oct 27, 2014

October 2014 Horror Movie a Day - Day 26: THE SACRAMENT (2013)

Writer and Director Ti West took a prominent spot in my 2014 Horror Movie a Day rotation with The Sacrament joining The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers. I loved both of the previous films, and was was instantly taken with West's approach to the material and atmospheric tone. This film was no different.

The Sacrament made the festival rounds in 2013, then received a VOD/Digital release in May of this year followed by a limited theatrical run in June. I generally go with the year that a film was released for general public consumption, but in this case I ran with what is listed on both IMDb and Wikipedia. It all comes down to how you look at things in this era of multiple and sometimes maddening distribution methods and whichever one your OCD is most comfortable with.

I'm ready for my close-up Mr. DeMille.
What struck me most about the three films was how different the subject matter of each is from the previous one. The House of the Devil features a babysitter running from Satan worshipers wanting to sacrifice her while The Innkeepers is about a pair of employees exploring a haunted hotel. The Sacrament covers subject matter that you would not expect as horror material, yet is just as engaging and as tense as any 'traditional' horror film. It comes down to the approach because as the fan-made horror trailers for Mrs. Doubtfire and Mary Poppins on YouTube prove, any subject can become a horror movie with the right music and editing.

Hey look, they have machine guns. Must be the welcoming committee.
I don't want to give too much of the plot of The Sacrament away because of the fact that it is so different from say a Hellraiser sequel where revealing details really won't ruin the 'experience' of viewing the film (also I doubt anyone is going to read those posts and run out to see those ASAP). That being said, if you know the story of the 'Jonestown Massacre' and Jim Jones you can pretty much figure out what is going to happen. Some of the internet forum messages criticized The Sacrament for using that framework in a fictional manner without referencing the original event. I think that West took the right approach because had it tied itself directly to that incident it would have become like one of those bad re-enactment shows as well as minimized the horror film tone that West intended. Here the Jonestown Masacre story is employed as a horror movie rather than a dramatic and sad event. West does employ a real media outlet in the narrative - Vice - which has the effect of blurring the line between reality and fantasy. Make no mistake, this is a fictional film that borrows heavily from an event in history that many modern (meaning younger) moviegoers may not be familiar with.

I'd say we'll be drinking the Kool-Aid, but for some reason they don't want their brand associated with our cult.
The Sacrament is also referred to as a 'found footage' movie which I don't think it comfortably fits into that description. Yes, the film is presented from the perspective of an investigative film crew's camera(s), but (trying not to give anything away) is more like a final documentary piece rather than a camera found after the fact. There are raw moments with the characters discussing their situation with the camera just running, but doesn't the footage have to be lost first to be 'found'? Thankfully, West avoids the annoying 'shaky cam' technique that often plagues those films. This is a professional crew, so the image is stable and every so often the cameraman (GASP) even puts the camera down (although he does leave it running). There are jolting moments where the image is frenetic like when a character is running to or from something, but these are sparse and strategically placed within the narrative which gives them more of an impact.

I'm a professional, no 'shaky cam' footage on my watch.
The film opens with Patrick (Kentucker Audley) at the Vice office reading a letter sent to him by his sister (Amy Seimetz), a recovering drug addict. She has invited him to 'Eden Parish' a drug-free commune at an undisclosed location. He travels there with cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) and reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) who plan to do a story on this because Patrick finds the tone of the letter suspicious. Flown in by helicopter to an isolated, jungle-like area, they are met by armed guards who are none-too-pleased to see that Patrick has brought extra guests and a camera pointed at them. Eventually finding Seimetz they make it onto the compound and are told that the place is a modern-day Shanghai-la where people have given up all their material possessions and financial savings to create a simple utopia fueled by community efforts and 'Christian' love. They have been brought there by a man they refer to as 'Father' (played by Gene Jones - yep...Jones, funny coincidence there) who like a voice of God can be heard making announcements over a loudspeaker. Sam and Jake are thrown by what these people have given up, but the citizens of Eden Parish seem happy and content. Some of the members agree to be interviewed and some don't. They all praise 'Father' for giving them a second chance at life, without the stress and distractions of the modern world. Sam is eventually granted a one-on-one with 'Father' that night to take place before a community celebration welcoming their guests. Both he and Jake feel uncomfortable and decide to get this over with and out of there as quickly as possible.

When 'Father' arrives for his interview, Sam is unnerved when he learns he is going to have to conduct it in front of the entire population of the commune. The interview is a strange one with 'Father' talking about how America is at war, and how he has created a safe and loving place for his 'flock'. It gets even more bizarre when 'Father' starts quizzing Sam about his wife and unborn child. How did he know about this, and why bring it up? Is it a veiled threat? This heightens the sense that they are in some sort of unforeseeable danger.

I asked for Barbara Walters!
Once the party begins, Patrick mysteriously disappears. Sam and Jake are told that he is engaged in a sexual threesome that has been arranged by his sister (very weird) who wants Patrick to stay and contribute his photography skills (he is a fashion photographer) and obtain money from their parents to help keep the community thriving. Sam and Jake are still uncomfortable especially given Patrick's disappearance (an arranged sexual liaison doesn't strike them as very 'religious'), but come to a conclusion that there is nothing sinister with this community as the people appear happy even if this is life that they personally could never live. Their new-found acceptance of Eden Parish is soon reversed during a very creepy sequence involving a mute little girl handing them a note - in the dark. She appears almost out of nowhere, and while we see her coming, the two are oblivious to her approach.. This is followed by a very effective sequence where Jake chases her around a hymn singing and wailing congregation, only catching fleeting glimpses of her on camera as she darts between the pews. As we the audience knew all along, things are not as peaceful as they appear in this so-called Utopian setting.

As with The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, West has done a fantastic job with casting likable actors in the lead roles. Sam and Jake never come off as sensation-seeking, cynical New York media types, but appear legitimately interested in the community and telling a balanced story. They are smart enough to know that there is something wrong within Eden Parish, but allow themselves to try to accept and understand the strange way of life these people have chosen. What they do have trouble with is the blind acceptance of 'Father' as a savior and the strange manner in which he conducted the interview.

I can take Freddy and Jason in a fight. They wouldn't stand a chance.
The antagonist 'Father' doesn't have a significant amount of screen time and is never seen carrying out any direct violence, yet still comes off as much of a terrifying figure as any homicidal maniac wielding a knife. Even more so since he does it with a smile while professing unconditional love for his 'flock'. He never comes across as over-the-top, a danger that comes with a role like that. West wisely keeps him as a 'phantom menace' for most of the picture. For instance, the second the protagonists enter the compound, 'Father' is immediately heard over the loudspeakers - but not seen - so you know he's around somewhere and danger lurks with him. He is as deluded as Marlon Brando was as Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (although not in the same league as that iconic performance) or Harrison Ford was as Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast.

Oh don't worry, I'll make sure you get the cherry-flavored Kool-Aid..
Regardless of a few technical logic gaps (there are times you wonder how with only '2 cameras' the characters managed to get certain shots not to mention the overall perfect production audio they capture given their limited equipment) and the fact I knew exactly where this story was headed thanks to my knowledge of 'Jonestown', I was really taken with this picture. Director West - who also was the picture editor - handles the raw documentary footage approach so it never takes precedence over the narrative or characters which often is the case with movies like this.

Once again Ti West has won me over. Judging by the forum comments I mentioned above, this movie didn't win over as many followers (yep, pun intended) as The House of the Devil or The Innkeepers. However I think it's just as effective as those pictures and am looking forward to seeing his next film which according to IMDb is a departure from horror, a western entitled In a Valley of Violence. Count me in!