The Sacrament

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Ti West

Starring

Gene Jones Joe Swanberg Kentucker Audley

Anticipation.

What will the wünderkind of US horror do next?

Enjoyment.

His eerie take on the Jonestown massacre reveals its hand too early.

In Retrospect.

Not the full package, but still a lot to love.

One of America's most exciting young directors delivers half of a great movie with this investigation into religious cults.

Ti West is that rare thing – a director who makes horror movies who is not a horror movie director. That is to say, he knows his oats when it comes to the genre, but treats his material with a reverence that largely rejects glib namechecking, expected gore money-shots and fanboy-pandering cliche. Even his one “for hire” job, a sequel to Cabin Fever from which he eventually lobbied to have his name removed, contains the kernel of inborn subversiveness, his appropriation of stock tropes producing something that’s far more interesting than a piece of stock, b-movie hackwork.

The Sacrament is his largest-scale project to date, and arrives on the tail of two retro horror classics in the form of 2009’s House of the Devil and 2011’s The Innkeepers. Premiering at the Venice Film Festival (no SXSW or Sundance for West!), the film certainly has art film credo, but is perhaps the director’s most formulaic and safe to date. But it’s still amply packed with chilling pleasures, dead-eyed violence and the continuing theme of young people gravitating towards vocations that lead to self-destruction.

Satirising Vice documentaries and their presenters’ predilection for endangering the lives of themselves and their subjects for the sake of audience kicks, the film sees a trio of gung-ho dude-bros heading to the fictitious cult utopia of Eden Parish in search of the lead presenter’s recently estranged sister. The settlement is lorded over by aviator-shaded good ol’ boy, The Father (Gene Jones), an apparently benign self-styled messiah figure who occasionally gifts his blissed-out brotherhood with open-air sermons peppered with seditious slogans and common sense easy answers.

Something is fishy, and the Vice crew just can’t seem to spot any flaws in the system. Everyone they talk to appears inspired by and thankful to the Father, and the creation of this enclave has helped save these lost souls from the twin-devils of commercialism and popular religion.

In the way that he structures his films, West usually opts for 90 per cent slow-build set-up followed by a climactic 10 per cent explosion of extreme violence before the credits roll. With The Sacrament, he’s tinkered with the formula, and it’s sadly to the detriment of the drama as a whole. The first half of the film is very strong, as the suggestion of something evil lurking behind the smiles and the muslin shawls is far more unnerving than the gun-blazing action which occurs after the penny finally drops. That’s not to say that the second portion of the film isn’t without merit, but West is so much better at inference and cleverly cloaking the shocking surprises than he is at executing those surprises.

It’s probably bad form to be chiding this film by saying that it’s not like the director’s other films, but there’s a classical sensibility that’s missing here due to West’s decision to frame the story as a film within a film. As such, the crummy hand-held DV production values preclude much of the exceptional camerawork and exemplary framing seen in his previous two films. Jones performance as the Father, though, is special, managing to channel a crooked, tin-pot southern senator along with the eerie intensity of late-period Robert Mitchum.

Published 7 Jun 2014

Tags: Ti West

Anticipation.

What will the wünderkind of US horror do next?

Enjoyment.

His eerie take on the Jonestown massacre reveals its hand too early.

In Retrospect.

Not the full package, but still a lot to love.

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