Review: The Sacrament

          Everyone complaining about the horror genre these days needs to look beyond the endless reboots and Paranormal Activity sequels to independent film. That’s where good, effective little flicks are being produced almost constantly; what makes some of them so enjoyable is that they’re made by savvy, skillful fans of the genre themselves. Adam Wingard took all of the conventions of slashers in general and home invasion films in particular to make his whip smart You’re Next last summer; a few years earlier, fellow “mumble gore” wunderkind Ti West released The House of the Devil, an 80s babysitter-in-peril throwback so suspenseful and polished it earned comparisons to Polanski. In short, the good stuff is out there-- if you seek it out. West’s latest, The Sacrament, may not be as brilliant as House, but it’s intelligent, stylish, and well-acted enough to serve as solid unsettling entertainment. The movie’s conceit is that it’s a real time documentary of a Vice Magazine expose on a cult in South America. Reporter Patrick (Kentucker Audley) is headed there to visit his recovering addict sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) with colleagues Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) in tow. Caroline claims to be extremely happy living on the compound devised by “Father” (Gene Jones in a phenomenal performance), as do most of the residents. But when a mute girl shows up at the door of Sam and Jake’s cabin, accompanied by a nervous mother who murmurs about “talking with outsiders,” it’s our first clue that all is not well at this would-be utopia. Things escalate quickly from bad to worse, with the guys realizing the residents are prisoners desperate for escape. Comparisons to Jonestown are well-founded; West clearly set out to tackle the incident head-on using a fictional framework, and while this film may not involve Satanic rituals or malevolent ghosts, it’s got horror to spare. To reveal too much more of the plot would be spoiling it, but suffice it to say that human suffering and the insidious effects of cults are portrayed unflinchingly. Jones does a brilliant job as the typically charismatic leader who combines ingratiating good cheer with gradually increasing menace. An interview between him and Sam is striking in that Father expertly manipulates the entire conversation, continually turning it back to his message and condemnations of the “Godless,” “imperialistic” outside world. Sam is made especially uncomfortable by questions concerning his pregnant wife, who provides a simple, potent motivator for his actions throughout the narrative. Bowen, who’s appeared in West’s Devil and in You’re Next in more sinister roles, has a likable everyman quality that’s put to good use here. Though technically a found footage movie, The Sacrament overcomes most of the subgenre’s pitfalls with excellent cinematography and the use of an unnerving Tyler Bates score. I was a bit letdown by the climactic reveals, which didn’t flesh out enough of the cult’s nature or its leader’s motivations. West excels at films that unfold deliberately towards horrific payoff, but The Sacrament didn’t totally live up to expectations. That being said, it effectively puts awful, all too plausible events onscreen in a way that will linger with viewers long afterwards. West remains one of the top craftsmen ensuring that the horror genre is alive and kicking in the 21st century. The Sacrament opens in limited release June 6 and is now available on iTunes. Follow me on Twitter @JustinLockwood2. Think I’m spot on, or full of it? Drop me a line at Justin.lockwood@gmail.com.

on May 26, 2014