The Sacrament. 2014. Directed & Written by Ti West.
Starring Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Sheil, Gene Jones, and Kentucker Audley. Magnet Releasing. Rated R. 95 minutes. Horror/Thriller
Previously I discussed The Sacrament in my 15 Found Footage Films Worth Watching. Here, I’ll go much more in-depth on why I think this is a great film overall.
I only discovered Ti West once seeing his 2009 film The House of the Devil. I went back and secured a copy of his first feature film from 2005 called The Roost – a neat little movie with mutated killer bats and a few friends on a road trip headed to a wedding; I love every frame of this one. Included on the DVD I bought, luckily, there came his earlier short film from back in 2001, Prey. He later went on to do the fantastic modern ghost tale of The Innkeepers, and a couple of great segments in both V/H/S (the short called “Second Honeymoon” featuring Joe Swanberg – actually my favourite of the first film’s shorts), as well as the 2012 horror mega-anthology The ABCs of Death (a divisive short called “M is for Miscarriage”).
Then came The Sacrament – West’s retelling of the Jonestown Massacre )see: Jim Jones and the People’s Temple in Guyana). For those who don’t know, Jones was a supposed preacher who basically built up a cult of personality around himself using the faith, and money (and bodies/souls), of a congregation made up from lonely and lost, broken hearted people who wanted nothing more than to believe in something tailored to them. They all eventually fled to the Republic of Guyana on the coast of South America and, using the life savings of many members in the People’s Temple, built their own town – aptly named Jonestown. Jones convinced his congregation they were better off in Guyana. He also managed to convince many, not all however, the American government and certain agencies such as the CIA wanted to kill him, and in turn them – that people were, as the saying goes, “out to get them”, (as Father says in The Sacrament when a young member questions why their fate must be what it is: “(if not) they will come down here with their guns and bombs and wipe us out!”). Then one day, Jones finally went off the deep end, after having lived a double life for quite some time pretending to be the all-righteous preacher by day and then indulging his primal urges by night (including alcohol, drugs, and the homosexual practices he condemned – Jones claimed himself to be the “only true heterosexual male” and justified his sodomizing of other men in his church as his sole option in helping those men in realizing their own homosexuality). He brought everyone their little meeting area at Jonestown, a crew of people brought out big jugs of mixed up Kool Aid with cyanide, and everyone proceeded to drink up – some were force fed, et cetera. You get the picture.
This is essentially the plot of The Sacrament, however, West does not use this as a “based on a true story” tale. It never says this anywhere. I believe West used the Jim Jones story to translate things into a new modern era. This also explains the reasoning behind choosing VICE as a way to explore the Jones story through a different lens, as well as a neat way to help lend the film a found footage feel. People will argue it isn’t “true” found footage, but it is – using VICE, West is able to disguise this as one of their hands on trips to a foreign country, practicing what they call “immersionism”, and so under that he’s able to also incorporate little bits of editing and the like.
Which brings me to one of the things I really feel puts this movie over as a horrifying ordeal. Aside from all the imagery of terror throughout, especially in the final reel, the music really helps West’s film in regards to atmosphere and tone. The mood is immediately set when the VICE guys roll into the Eden Parish complex (the West-version of Jonestown) and soon the foreboding music begins. It’s really great. As things get more uncomfortable, and at times downright creepy, the score goes along: it gets dark and deep, slow, picking up its pace in parallel to that of the film itself. This is one of my favourite parts about the inclusion of VICE as part of the plot – West can account for the sense of editing inherent in the music by putting it off on VICE taking the footage back, editing later, as they do. This helps alleviate some of the pressures of the found footage sub-genre. West didn’t have to be too strict worrying about whether or not everything seemed perfectly explainable in as far as they had to perfectly fit the found footage “rules” in order for people to accept how things were being filmed (because we all know when it comes to horror and sub-genres specifically some fans are picky as all hell – to an unfair fault both to the filmmakers, as well as their own enjoyment of movies..). All that said, the music is just really wonderful. I couldn’t care less if it fit or not with the found footage aspect because it just worked so well for the film I really cannot complain one bit.
For those who don’t particularly care for / follow Ti West, he often works in conjunction with a bunch of other filmmakers and actors associated with the “mumblegore” film movement (a particularly silly moniker I think doesn’t do their talent justice). These people include fellow directors Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg (who regularly acts as well), actors A.J Bowen and Amy Seimetz, and multi-talent Kentucker Audley (everyone aside from Audley was involved with Wingard’s 2001 directorial effort You’re Next which was only just released last year; West acted in that one and got murdered fairly quickly).
In this movie, we get everybody mentioned aside from Wingard. Bowen and Swanberg play the VICE guys – each of them are very believable and because of their previous relationship were clearly able to appear natural together on camera + playing faux-real people in the documentary-styled film. I particularly love Bowen, and here he is very good. I thought he played the character of Sam well from start to finish – both as the confident VICE reporter and then later as the scared man trying to help himself while also worrying about helping others. Bowen worked well as Sam in those later bits because West played with the fact this man was an expecting father. While he clearly wanted to get out of there, as anyone would especially if they have no real personal attachment to the place, Bowen showed the struggle of a man who couldn’t fly back home to his pregnant wife, his unborn child, knowing he didn’t do anything and everything he could to help the men, women, and children at Eden Parish. There was some great stuff in there. Bowen helped get that out and make it part of why The Sacrament was effective.
Amy Seimetz, who is always fantastic and great at playing complex female characters, gives a great performance as the sister to Audley’s character; she is one of the lost flock who follow Father down to Eden Parish. In fact, the scene between Audley and Seimetz (you’ll know which one) later in the film is not only heartbreaking, it is a master class in acting. Each of them were in fine form, most certainly Audley, but it was definitely one of the most heartwrenching scenes of any horror film in 2014; without a doubt. I could feel the pain dripping out the frame. Classic scene.
I know some people wonder why Ti West chose a story such as that of Jones to use as a template for this story in The Sacrament. But again, I say it – nowhere does West claim that his film is whatsoever based on a true story. He knows we’re smart enough to understand where it comes from – even those younger moviegoers who may not be all that familiar with Jones will probably, through the internet, come to figure out this has some basis in reality.
Regardless, West crafts something better than just a Lifetime Biography on the Jonestown Massacre because he doesn’t hold it to the standards of the actual story. West could write a more diverse character in Father by not holding him strictly to the mould of Jim Jones. If he had based this completely on Jones, he would have had to stick with the period of time in which it happened – right there, not only does this eliminate any elaboration on the character types within the story, it also completely puts the kibosh on the VICE angle, and then all the threads start slowly wearing away. I think it was smart of West to choose this story, as it’s socially relevant in any time let alone the strange times we live in today, and by manipulating it and not sticking totally to a true story he is able to leave certain aspects unlimited.
For instance, the relationship between the brother and sister (Audley and Seimetz) could have been done through an unchanged version of the Jonestown story, however, it also risks not doing justice to actual survivors.
While people can argue it’s just as insensitive (or whatever else they want to say) that West would make a fictional story out of a tragedy which really happened, he really makes a great film and tells a rich story. By not making this the Jim Jones story, he also sheds some responsibilities – not only to the sub-genre of found footage film, but also to the real people who experienced Jonestown firsthand.
Bad taste? I don’t think so. Not by my watch. This is a great and powerful horror film for modern audiences. It satisfied me to no end. Having seen almost ever single piece of Ti West’s work as a director, I can honestly say his work gets better and better. I’m looking forward to seeing In a Valley of Violence. He’s a guy to keep your eye on.