Actors: AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Gene Jones, Amy Seimetz, and Kentucker Auldrey
Synopsis: Group of reporters investigate a suspicious religious commune when things go horrifyingly bad. This is their footage.
Ah the Philadelphia Film Festival. It’s arguably my favorite time of the year as a movie goer. I get the opportunity to catch a few films surrounded by a theater full of my movie nerd peers rather than the general movie going audience that tends to just look at the bigger films in the regular theaters. Admittedly, I tend to stray from the more “important” films of the festival and solely put my eggs in the Graveyard Shift (formerly known as Danger After Dark) selections. These are normally the oddballs of the festival and put their focus on horror, zany martial arts flicks, or just the absurdly bizarre. In recent years though, I’ve noticed they have been putting less attention on the horror genre itself and focusing more on the other two. So when I saw Ti West’s newest film, The Sacrament, in there I jumped immediately at the chance to see it.
Not necessarily horror in the strictest sense, The Sacrament presents a reimagining of the famous Jonestown Massacre via the “found footage” method. Following a team of three members of the fictional VICE, a hip expose on controversial events, we find ourselves in a remote area of South America (it might as well be Guyana) at a religious-based community built compound known as, Eden Perish. Eden Parish is disguised as an addition recovery society that is fueled by their faith in God and lead by a very charismatic figure known only as, Father. His charm and hold over the parishioners is very apparent long before he even makes his visual presence known and because we all know the history of Jonestown, we know his socialist and religious views are far from honorable. The questions start to begin quicker than you’d imagine as we see one of our “outsiders” lured away by his sister almost immediately after getting down there. Oh I forgot to mention, our photographer of the group is the reason we’re here in the first place. His sister is a former abuser that left him a very mysterious letter that didn’t provide many details other than a phone number to call, which lead them to Eden Parish.
With films like The Innkeepers and House Of The Devil, I’m really starting to become a big fan of Ti West. It’s clear that he’s a fan of the older films as his works are clear homages to generations past. So it was a bit odd that he dove head first into the oversaturated sub-genre of “found footage” films. I mean, I know he worked on VHS but that was a short and collaboration with other directors. I didn’t think he would really go full-fledged with this path. The other surprising aspect is that he essentially is telling a film that we know the ending too. The Jonestown Massacre is a horrific incident and scarier than any monster flick we can come up with because in this instance this was 100% real. I held out for a while into the film figuring he’d offer up some new twist to end it but realized quickly that it wouldn’t serve him any good to stray away from recreating something similar to what really did happen in Jonestown.
What really works in this film is the characters and the actors ability to make them come off as real as possible. AJ Bowen is becoming one of my favorite independent actors and his ability to go from overly eager, almost egotistical journalist to immediately suspicious and concerned for not only the safety of himself but for those of the parish, appeared to be natural. Amy Seimetz perfectly lays on the Southern charm & hospitality overdramatically to give the audience just enough of a bout of suspicion with her and tease us with it throughout the film. However, the real star of the show lies with Gene Jones, who is insanely believable as the charismatic Father figure. His southern draw and flare for the dramatics comes off so genuine that you almost believe he’s not really acting. The most unnerving scene, where he takes absolute control of the film, is when Bowen’s character finally gets an interview with Father in front of the entire community. His response and demeanor throughout brings us to the edge of our seat. While he answers in a friendly, joking manner you can immediately tell that there is nothing but bad intentions going on upstairs especially as he turns the tables on the interview and grills the reporter with direct and very personal questions. While watching these 5 minutes, I was convinced that Jim Jones possessed the actor and we were witnessing the insane ideology of the deceased preacher for real. Monsters and slashers are cool and all, but this is true horror.
While Eli Roth is mostly known for his ability to drive the gore levels up with films like Hostel, it’s his respect for the classics that I admire the most about him. In many respects, West is the next Roth but has not yet lost his independent roots. Hopefully with Roth’s name attached to the film, a portion of his large fanbase will jump onboard with this. This, the found footage concept, is a safe transition into someone who is quickly becoming an outstanding director. West was able to take two rather simple concepts, put them together, and make them completely work in a very solid film. Although found footage horror is played out and the entire plot of the story, including the ending, is already known, this is still something I highly recommend seeing when it either gets a release in the theaters or comes out on blu-ray. I would also recommend checking out West’s other films, House Of The Devil and The Innkeepers.