Ti West, arguably the most important young filmmaker working in the horror genre today, continues to challenge himself with his latest, The Sacrament. West has now proven that he’s less interested in repeating his past successes than venturing out to the peripheries of the genre while never exiting its bounds. In The Sacrament, he’s employing the ever-growing found footage technique, which is particularly fitting here considering that his inspiration is the real-life Jonestown Massacre from 1978, in which a crazy religious cult leader convinced 900 plus followers to commit suicide via cyanide poisoning.
While he’s shown his strengths as a period filmmaker in The House of the Devil, West here is working in the present day, where three friends head out to document a commune where one of their sisters has found peace and bliss after leaving drug rehab. Called Eden Parish, it appears to be a pretty inviting place, and its inhabitants rave about it and its leader, Father (Gene Jones), an emblem of Southern hospitality and religious fervor.
Still, the viewer senses something’s not right from the get-go, and things really start to get creepy in a brilliant scene in which the friends, enjoying a community party, are abruptly handed a slip of paper by a young girl in a white dress that reads help us. She then disappears into the crowd, and as the friends run after her, we see fleeting images of her darting among people, disappearing then appearing again, like a phantom. It’s the film’s first moment of real crisis, West’s cue for the horror to begin.
West, who’s greatest gift may be the patience he has as a storyteller, letting the narrative transpire at a comfortable pace, the violence unfold as logical conclusions to the plot rather than for its own sake, is a little more indulgent this time around. The characters become increasingly opaque as the shock value increases, and as the inevitably violent crescendo draws near, it feels as though West is more out to exploit rather than craft a genuinely worthwhile story.
With a cast made up mostly of mumbelcore vets and a visual style that (almost unavoidably) doesn’t quite pay heed to the logic of found-footage, The Sacrament is never quite as convincing as it could be. But it’s undeniably disturbing and creepy, and arguably worth seeing for Jones’ terrifying performance alone.