Given how tried, tested and frankly stagnant the “Found Footage” sub-horror-genre has become you may be inclined to avoid The Sacrament. But you’d be missing out on a film that doesn’t so much revolutionise the genre as reinvigorate it.
Seemingly inspired heavily by The Jonestown Massacre of 1978, The Sacrament follows a documentary news team led by Sam (AJ Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) who decide to track down their friend Patrick’s (Kentucker Audley) sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz). Caroline has sent Patrick a letter inviting him to visit her new home “Eden Parish”. Upon arrival the team are met with hostility by guards brandishing guns but once deemed non-threatening are welcomed into the community. This is a place of seeming contentment away from the hustle and bustle of modern life and technology. But beneath the surface something doesn’t sit right and the mysterious figure of the community leader, known as Father (Gene Jones), seems anxious to only impart to the news team information that he deems fit for public consumption.
Writer-director Ti West has firmly cemented himself as a master of the horror genre. With films such as House Of The Devil and The Innkeepers he has proved that less is almost certainly more when it comes to shock and terror. The Sacrament is no exception to his tried and tested modus operandi. The film starts slow, the footage feeling distinctly like an episode of Panorama or perhaps a Louis Theroux investigates piece.
As such we get to know the team well, Sam is a dotting husband anxiously expecting his first-born child. Jake is a seasoned pro who takes things in his stride and Patrick a man probably a little too green to have come on an expedition like this. But where West always excels is planting a sense of genuine dread into almost every scene. From the moment the crew arrive at Eden Parish there is something wonderfully uncomfortable.
It’s never anything as overt as co-producer Eli Roth, of Hostel fame, would offer up but rather something to just niggle an unsettling feeling in the back of the mind. It’s the whole concept of not seeing what’s going on beneath the surface. Like never seeing the shark in Jaws you know something is amiss but your imagination is infinitely more powerful than anything West can put on screen.
The ending if anything feels slightly anti-climactic. But it’s an ending that refuses to dip into anything overtly gory or even resembling other-worldly like the cheap ending to films like The Last Exorcism. Instead we’re presented with the true horrors man is capable of, or at least the true horrors to which some men will go to force their beliefs on to others.
Genuinely chilling and deeply traumatising, if Ti West is mixing the Kool-Aid we’ll happily drink it down.