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Don’t drink the Kool-Aid (or the Flavor Aid): “The Sacrament”

October 6, 2014

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Ah, The Sacrament. This is a frustrating movie. Frustrating in the way my eighth-teachers were frustrated with me when I’d spend an entire class period drawing a picture of the Blue Thunder helicopter fighting a giant shark on the back of my math test. Wait, no, that suggests I have or had some aptitude for math. Heh. No. But Ti West does have potential—in fact he’s one of the freshest, most interesting horror filmmakers working today. That’s why it’s so disappointing that he made this misfire of a movie. I mean, it’s not even really a horror movie (as much as it pretends to be).

Okay, right of the bat I’m going to spoil The Sacrament, but I’m not sure it counts as a spoiler when a movie uses a historical tragedy as its jumping-off point and then…plays out exactly like the event played out. Anyway, if you don’t want to know what happens in The Sacrament…oh shit, I probably already gave it away. Welp, that round is downrange. Might as well just move on.

No interview that involves speaking in tongues ever ended well.

No interview that involves speaking in tongues ever ended well.

So, you know the Jonestown Massacre? Yeah, this movie is that.

The Sacrament updates the scenario by setting the story in the present and entering the world through two Vice reporters (basically, the Mountain Dew of journalism), who travel to this remote commune (it’s never disclosed where, but the movie alternately suggests it’s either rural Louisiana or maybe a sparsely-populated Caribbean island)  at the behest of a photographer searching for his addict sister who moved there with a cult.

This conceit also gives us the excuse for why this is a found-footage movie. FML.

Well, this trio—played by AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, and Kentucky Adler as the photog—finds what seems to be an idyllic hippie commune, where people grow their own food, make their own goods, produce their own porn (I’m guessing), and even have a well-stocked dispensary with medicines purchased with the donated funds from the members. And all of this exists beneath the soothing bromides of “Father” the cult’s leader, who broadcasts over loudspeakers like a folksier Kim Jong Un.

Wow. They even buy their sunglasses in the same place.

Wow. They even buy their sunglasses in the same place.

Of course, soon enough the trio discover some ominous things beneath the seeming-placid (if glassy-eyed) surface. I won’t bore you with the details, because the movie trots out the same hoary chestnuts you’ve seen in countless movies and TV shows that deal with controlled-societies—this person refuses to speak to the reporters; that one slips them a note warning them of danger; that hut is clocked and forbidden to the outsiders. And it goes on, and nothing is new or original.

AK-47s at the main gate is never a good sign.

AK-47s at the main gate is never a good sign.

Eventually, Father agrees to be interviewed, but does so in a group setting, which me makes into a performance. This is probably the film’s best scene—maybe its only good one—as Gene Jones turns in an amazing performance. Slathering Southern charm atop relatively-benign religious zeal, he alternately charms and parries the questions, until he finally turns the tables on his interrogators in a scene where he quickly, fleetingly, shows his fangs.

And then it all plays out like you’d expect.  The reporters find out that, yes, something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark, and Father responds by breaking out the Flavor-Aid (no, it wasn’t Kool-Aid, regardless of what pop-culture has insisted over the years). And, yeah, everyone dies.

"Well, this went south fast..."

“Well, this went south fast…”

The movie tries to wring some thrills over the (frankly incongruous) AK-47 wielding guards who hunt down the interlopers. Problem is, the true horror has happened already. This is just the mop-up, and as  a result there are no more stakes. Sure we’d hate to see our protagonists get killed, but after so many lives have already willfully stepped off the cliff, their survival seems like a pretty wan reward.

This is the first film by Ti West that I actively disliked. True, I didn’t love The Innkeepers as much as his debut feature House of the Devil, but it wasn’t a bad film by any stretch of the imagination—it just needed a second pass by the editor. The fact is, West is a master craftsman who knows how to create suspense, atmosphere, and deliver good old fashioned get-under-your-skin chills. But with this film, he simply does everything wrong.

The found-footage conceit hobbles the film, limiting what West is able to do with the story, and—as it usually does—pulling us out of the movie as we ponder why someone would keep filming while dodging gunfire. It kneecaps any attempt to create fleshed-out characters, which is one of West’s strongest suits. The Innkeepers was a bit pokey because he spent so much time creating two vividly-realized leads. In this film, the protagonists exist simply to make the story go.

The slow build-up of dread and portent—the area where West might well be without peer—simply can’t be pulled off under these circumstances. That’s a shame, because West almost certainly could have made a straight version of this story that would have been brutally effective. Instead, every decision West has made with this movie is the wrong one. Indeed, this choice of material plays to none of West’s strengths. Why he chose to take on this project is a mystery.

So, that’s The Sacrament. I hope this is only a bump in the road for West. He is genuinely one of the horror genre’s rising stars. It’d be a shame to see him get lost in the wilderness.

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