• Sacrament, The



    Directed by: Ti West
    Released by: Magnet Releasing
    Released on: August 19, 2014
    Cast: Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Kentucker Audley
    Year: 2013
    Purchase from Amazon

    The Movie

    Few directors currently working in the horror genre today are as loved and hated in equal measure as Ti West. After making huge waves in the horror community with his “Satanic Panic” thriller House of the Devil in 2009, many fans and critics turned on Ti West after the release of his slow-burn ghost story, The Innkeepers, in 2011. Fans have praised Ti West's attention to craft and detail and his ability to create and sustain tension until his film's last terrifying moments, but his critics have derisively labeled his brand of indie horror “mumblegore” (along with contemporaries E.L. Katz, Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, among others). While it represents another step forward for Ti West as one of horror's best new voices, his new found footage movie The Sacrament is likely to be just as divisive as his previous films.

    The Sacrament begins as if it were an official VICE documentary. If you showed this movie to a friend but skipped the menu or didn't tell them it was a movie, they might be inclined to believe it was a VICE-produced documentary. AJ Bowen (You're Next, House of the Devil) stars as Sam Turner, a VICE immersion journalist contacted by fashion photographer Patrick Carter (Kentucker Audley) about his missing sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz), an ex-junkie who had been staying at a sober living community in rural Mississippi until the commune and everyone in it disappeared. Carter received a subsequent letter from his sister inviting him to come visit the new commune, Eden Parish, established outside the US in some unnamed South American country. Sam and his cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) accompany Carter to this supposed utopia, hoping to spin this reunion story into a Vice Guide to Travel style documentary.

    As soon as they arrive, it's clear to the VICE crew that something isn't right. They're met by hostile guards with AK-47s who they were told that Patrick was coming alone. Caroline meets them at the gates and, despite her obvious surprise at seeing Sam and Jake, she lets them in and begins to give them a tour. Eden Parish looks like a military outpost meets Sleepaway Camp, but the VICE guys shrug it off as just some commune built by hippies, ex-junkies and alcoholics. They're impressed by its scale and the fact that it's in the middle of a South American jungle (actually Savannah, Georgia), but that's about it. As Caroline is giving them the tour, they hear an ominous welcome message broadcast over the camp's PA system from “Father” (Gene Jones), the leader of Eden Parish. They learn from Caroline and some of the parishioners willing to talk to them that Father convinced everyone in his church to sell their belongings, leave their homes, and invest all their savings into building Eden Parish. Again, this strikes the VICE crew as odd but it doesn't set off any red flags. Everyone they talk to is convinced that Eden Parish is paradise on Earth.

    Sam asks Caroline if they can interview Father, and they're granted an interview at a Parish gathering later that night. Despite wanting to ask Father some hard questions, Sam is visibly uncomfortable at being placed in front of the entire congregation. Father quickly takes control of the conversation, manipulating the interview into a sermon about the evils of capitalism, the Media, and America. He makes Sam and Jake out to be examples of America's ideological conditioning. Disappointed at how the interview went, the filmmakers head back to their cabin, but are met on the way by a little girl who hands them a note reading “Please help us.”

    If you're starting to get the feeling that The Sacrament is based on a certain mass suicide that happened in the late 1970s, you know this is not going to end well.

    Spoiler warning for anyone who doesn't know their cults and mass murderers, but The Sacrament is closely based on the true story of the Jonestown Massacre, which occurred at the People's Temple in the South American country of Guyana in 1978. “Father” is an analogue of the cult leader Jim Jones, Eden Parish is the People's Temple, the setting is meant to look like Guyana, and the VICE crew are the NBC news team that visited Guyana with a US Congressman and were murdered by Jim Jones and his Red Brigade death squad.

    If the parallels to this very real mass suicide don't keep you from wanting to watch The Sacrament, its found footage style might. All I can say is that, as someone who's not generally a fan of found footage horror, I was consistently impressed by how well shot The Sacrament was. Ti West's films are known for his meticulous shot composition and framing. While The Sacrament is filmed entirely using handheld equipment, each scene still manages to feel deliberate. Most found footage horror directors seem to coast by on rough camerawork meant to feel like it's being made by an amateur, but that isn't the case here. The fact that it was filmed in a camp built by the crew from the ground up also gives the movie a lived-in feel and increases the level of realism on display.

    Even if you know the story of Jonestown, The Sacrament is an intense, taut, and chilling film. The credit for this goes to Ti West, who wrote, directed and edited the film, his crew, and the superb performances of his cast. Gene Jones (No Country for Old Men) is disturbingly charismatic as Father. The sound of him quietly telling his parishioners to just “lie down” and die stuck with me long after the movie was over. Amy Seimetz once again proves that she's one of the most underrated actresses working in Hollywood. AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg are very believable as the two-man VICE film crew. While at first their acting seems like it's made for reality TV, once the truth about Eden Parish is revealed they drop the act and their performances become completely believable.

    Many viewers will ask themselves why Ti West chose to make The Sacrament not about a place “like Jonestown” rather than making a movie directly about the Jonestown massacre like Guyana: Cult of the Damned. Take this attitude, set it aside, and you'll be more likely to appreciate what the film offers. The Sacrament isn't just a simplified retelling of Jonestown. Thematically, it's about the power of religious fanaticism, and how charismatic political and religious leaders can convince desperate people to do horrible things to themselves. By setting the movie in the present, West seems to be suggesting that America's poor and disadvantaged people are primed and ready to become victims of another Jonestown. It can also be argued that in spite of using VICE as a framing device, the filmmakers are somewhat complicit in film's horrifying conclusion. Not by directly participating in atrocities, like in Cannibal Holocaust, but by not recognizing the warning signs of a cult sooner, and by trying to remain objective in spite of what is happening around them. The film not only asks how people are so willing to just drink to their own deaths, but why these filmmakers are willing to make a documentary about it.

    Audio/Video/Extras

    The Sacrament has received a reverential treatment on Blu-ray courtesy of Magnet Releasing's 1080p high definition transfer presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The film looks outstanding. Ti West is often known for his attention to visual detail and The Sacrament is no different. In spite of its premise as a found footage movie, The Sacrament looks like a professional feature. If you demand your found footage movies to maintain a certain level of grittiness, then West's glossy feature might rub you the wrong way but it does look very much like a VICE documentary. There a high level of detail apparent, however, a digital grain effect was applied to the film to make it look like it was shot on film. This doesn't look too artificial and benefits the overall look and feel of the movie, but it does remove some of the fine detail from the actor's faces during closeups. The green forest that surrounds Eden Parish occasionally looks brighter than natural, but otherwise it doesn't look like the film's color has been digitally corrected.

    The lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track provides an immersive sound dimension to The Sacrament. Sound plays an important role in building tension throughout the film, but its effect is very subtle. At first most of the sound is just dialogue and an ambient electronic score just beneath the conversation between the reporters and the parish members. However, there's a nice level of dynamic range in the dialogue and the film handles sonic positioning very well. When Father first welcomes the VICE reporters on the camp loudspeaker, he sounds far away despite being clearly audible. As the film picks up in intensity, so does its score and sound effects. The 5.1 audio track is never flashy, but it is perfectly mixed and chillingly effective.

    Special Features on this Blu-ray include a Feature commentary, Creating the Sacrament: Revealing the Vision, Working with the Director: The Ti West Experience, Preparing for Takeoff: Behind the Scenes Helicopter Sequence, and AXS TV: A Look at The Sacrament. The commentary track with Ti West, AJ Bowen and Amy Seimetz is informative and high energy. West leads the conversation, but since he's worked with Bowen and Seimetz on several films they have a natural chemistry with each another. The whole commentary walks that line of being informative and fun to listen to, like you're sitting in a room with a group of friends who made a movie together. Most of what they talk about involves details about the production and the making of the film, but there are some amusing anecdotes here that didn't make it into any of the other featurettes.

    Creating The Sacrament: Revealing the Vision details the development of the film from Ti West's initial pitch to his producers and Eli Roth, to the film's financing, the writing of the scrip, and the process of making the film. This documentary featurette includes interviews with Ti West, Eli Roth, the producers, as well as the cast and crew. All the major topics related to the film are discussed: it's relation to Jonestown, how the film came about, why Ti West decided to make it an original film rather than a documentary or a “Based on a True Story” type film, and more. If you're interested in learning more about the film but don't want to listen to the commentary, it's worth a watch. Working with the Director: The Ti West Experience feels like an extension of Creating the Sacrament, but as the title indicates, it focuses more specifically on Ti West, inclduing why the cast and crew want to work with him, and what the experience of that collaboration is like. It's an interesting feature but it's more for fans of the director than the film.

    Preparing for Takeoff: Behind the Scenes Helicopter Sequence is a brief but in-depth look at a sequence that occurs late in the film where the helicopter pilot is shot as Jake is running towards him, and the final helicopter boarding scene. This behind the scenes feature offers a comparison of what they filmed to how the finished sequence looks. The AXS TV segment is a brief promotional segment that features some more interviews with Eli Roth, Ti West and the cast, but is less informative than what's offered in the other featurettes.

    The Final Word

    The Sacrament is one of 2013's best horror films, and another step forward for Ti West. It stands with Cannibal Holocaust and Chronicle as one of the most compelling and well made found footage movies I've ever seen. Love him or hate him, all serious horror fans should watch this film.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!