“The Sacrament” by Dusty

Sacrament - Poster

Read Lisa’s review here.  It’s terrific.

Description from Netflix:
Using “found footage”, this unnverving thriller recounts the tragic story of an exiled Christian cult and the grisly events that transpire after three journalists – one looking for his missing sister – arrive at the commune.

My thoughts:
Lisa and I had a rousing debate over the term “found footage”.  In some movies, it’s an accurate descriptor.  In others, not so much.  Because of that, I will refer to this movie as being in the “first person” subgenre of horror.  I’ll try to remember to do this for all films in this subgenre going forward, but I make no promises.  Old habits die hard.

My thoughts on Ti West are pretty well known at this point.  I hated House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, and his segment in V/H/S.  I haven’t seen Cabin Fever 2 in years, but I don’t remember liking it.  I haven’t seen his earliest work, mainly because I have no desire to see them.
With that being said, I kept an open mind going into this one.  As I said in my review of The Innkeepers, Ti West knows how to make a movie look good, so I figured this would be visually interesting if nothing else.
I also knew that this film was, at the very least, a nod to the events at Jonestown in 1978.  As is the case with any religious cult, those events have long interested and horrified me.  I even went so far as to listen to The Jonestown Death Tape (I do not recommend this).
What I found in The Sacrament was not so much a nod to the events of Jonestown as it was a modern day retelling.  Many events were exactly the same as those that occurred at Jonestown, right down to some very specific details.

Sacrament - Eden Parish Sign

It almost lost me in the early-going.  While it had a nice set-up that kicked off the film quickly, it also featured a number of common first person horror problems: camera shaking around, people repeatedly yelling, “Turn the camera off,” etc.  I don’t have a problem with first person movies: when done properly, they can be terrifying.  The audience doesn’t have to find someone to identify with on screen, because they are essentially in the movie.  However, when done poorly, the problems are nearly impossible to ignore.  If these problems are a minor blip over the course of the movie, it’s easy enough to gloss over.  But if it’s a problem throughout, it drags the entire film down (looking at you, Hud, for repeatedly screaming “Rob!” in Cloverfield).  The annoyances at the beginning threatened to derail the film for me.  Thankfully, none of these lasted very long.

That’s not to say no first-person problems reared their heads.  The one that really got me was the excessive dialog (this is the first time this complaint has come up about a Ti West film).  It’s a downside of a first-person movie.  To make it feel like real people in a real scenario, characters are forced to react as normal people would.  That means lots of questions about what they’re seeing, and talking about what they had just seen.  It’s a realistic depiction of what would happen if I were in that situation, but it kind of suffocated the film.  We see some horrifying and confusing things.  Instead of laying back a little and letting the audience process what they have just witnessed, we are bombarded with questions from the characters.  “Did you just see that?  What was that?” then immediately answering those questions.  Every emotion was vocalized.  Every question answered before the audience has had time to fully process everything.
Again, I realize this is to make the events feel more realistic, but it really hurt the film as a whole.  They needed to let the movie breathe a little more.  Let the audience sit with what they have just seen.  This was my major problem with the film.  If you were to read my notes, you would see the phrase “LET IT BREATHE!” repeated ad nauseam.
There was also a pretty big (if nit-picky) problem later on, but it spoils a pretty major plot point, so I won’t get into that here.

Sacrament - Sam 1

I also had a problem with our main protagonist (Sam) in the beginning.  As soon as he got to Eden Parish (the Jonestown-esque commune), he immediately started looking down on its inhabitants.  He was nice when trying to interview them, but, behind their backs, he was rolling his eyes.  It didn’t get the character off on the right foot.  Thankfully, this didn’t last too long.

There were a handful of moments that saw the plot (and paranoia of our characters) driven forward by some pretty large logic leaps.  The major offender was when Sam finally got a chance to sit down for an interview with Father (the Jim Jones of Eden Parish).  The interview is going well, if a bit odd, when Father suddenly asks if Sam loves his wife.  For no reason whatsoever, Sam is immediately rattled.  He’s wearing a wedding ring, so it shouldn’t be a shock that Father knows about his marital status.  Sam’s reaction to that simple question shook me out of the scene a little, which is a shame.
The interview is one of the best scenes in the movie.  It’s the first time we get to see Father, and it’s a terrific introduction.  He isn’t overly charismatic, but it’s easy to see why he has as many followers as he does.  He’s manipulative in a way that doesn’t seem manipulative.  He deflects and redirects questions with ease; in doing so he assures himself of only answering questions that fit his agenda.  He’s a kindly older gentleman who can lead with a smile and some words about fulfilling the will of God.  Father is played to perfection by Gene Jones.  It would have been easy to have made Father into an arm-waving tent revival preacher, but they wisely went with a more understated vibe.

At some point, we begin to realize the people are brainwashed.  (Personally, I assumed as much before the movie started even started.)  That was, indeed, the case.  As we meet the residents of Eden Parish, we get a better picture of how this happened.  The best way to brainwash is to find people at their lowest, gain their trust, and promise them something better.  That was the case with pretty much everyone who ended up at Eden Parish.  Caroline – a sister of one of the cameramen, and the reason they were able to gain entrance to Eden Parish – suffered with drug abuse for years.  Two brothers who grew up in a violent community.  An elderly widow who had nothing after her husband died.  These were people at their lowest, and Father preyed on that to build his idyllic community.   He convinced them to sell off all their worldly possessions to fund Eden Parish.  He cut his followers off from all communication with the outside world, so he could control the flow of information about the outside world.  Father’s paranoia became their very real fear.  These people saw a lack of communication with the outside world as freedom, when really it just allowed Father to create a prison for them.
To make things even more chilling, I don’t believe Father was malicious.  I truly believe he was doing what he thought was right.  That makes him something worse than a con man: that makes him a monster.
It’s worth noting that all of this is in line with what Jim Jones did.  It may have made this film easier to watch if Father was a fictional character.  To know that there was a man and a place almost exactly like this made for a supremely unnerving viewing experience.

Sacrament - Father and Sam

There were some creepy scenes scattered throughout the film (I kind of enjoyed the addition of the familiar “girl in the white dress and long hair” horror trope), but none of them were of the jump-scare variety.  They were born of the environment, not manufactured out of thin air.

The film moves along at a pretty good clip, dragging a creeping dread and paranoia around with it.  By the time everything came to a head in the final act, the madness that ensued was well-earned.
If you know anything about Jonestown, you have a pretty good idea of how this ends (even down to some very specific details).  It did not disappoint.  It was horrifying and off-putting.  There were a couple dumb character moments that threatened to overtake the ending, but, thankfully, they didn’t.

Sacrament - Sam and Jake

After the movie was over, I wasn’t overly impressed.  “My favorite Ti West movie, not that it’s saying too much,” I grumbled to myself.
But this one really stuck with me.  Certain scenes are impossible to get out of my head.  A couple days away from it, I think I really liked it.  As I mentioned above, Gene Jones was terrific as Father, and, after a rough opening, AJ Bowen turned in a terrific performance as Sam.
It’s not a perfect film, but it’s definitely worth watching.  Throw your preconceived notions about Ti West and first-person horror out the window and watch this for what it is: a horrifying portrait of darkness disguised as light and hope.  This is the worst of mankind, masquerading as the best.  This isn’t the monster in the closet or the zombie shambling down the street.  This is something that could be in your hometown.  This is Jones.  This is Koresh.  This is Heaven’s Gate.  This is Solar Temple.  This is Manson.  This is Gacy.  This is Dahmer.  This is Bundy.  This is real life, and it’s one of the more unnerving films I have seen in recent memory.

Rating: 4/5

The Sacrament

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Alright children, buckle your seat belts, because you are about to go on a twisted, emotional journey with VICE: a New York City based multimedia company who is known for covering stories that tend to be overlooked by the mainstream media.  Sam Turner (A.J. Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) go with their friend Patrick Carter (Kentucker Audley) to visit Patrick’s sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz). Once an addict, Caroline now lives in a mysterious community that will not give their location and do not usually accept visitors.

Written, directed and edited by Ti West, The Sacrament is a compelling and perfectly plotted story about religious cults. West is best known for directing The House of the Devil which is a very polarizing movie. For every person, like myself, that fell head over heels in love with it’s amazing throwback look, feel and tone, there is someone who finds it as boring as watching paint dry and/or pretentious in equal measure. Though not a fan of the Innkeepers or his segment in V/H/S, I have always appreciated what he’s doing. On the other side of that sentiment are the people who believe the only good thing West has done is take an arrow to the head in You’re Next. Well, I cannot wait to hear what all of those negative Nellies have to say after viewing The Sacrament.

West has assembled the usual suspects together (Swanberg, Bowen, Seimetz) to tell the story of Charles Anderson Reed, (Gene Jones) better known as Father to his children at Eden Parish. Jones is absolutely mesmerizing. When Sam finally gets to sit down with him for an interview, it brought me back to those Billy Graham sermons I was dragged to as a child. Gene Jones is fantastic in this role. Bowen is equally amazing playing the hard hitting journalist. Bowen is one of my favorite actors in horror today because he gets better with every role. You see him in The Signal and you are blown away and then he goes and does A Horrible Way To Die and you think, well, this must be his best performance. No children, The Sacrament is, thus far, his finest performance. All of the subtleties required of his character to be believable, but real are played perfectly by Bowen. I simply cannot wait to see what else he has in store for us in the future.

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Like all West films, the attention to detail is incredible. The way different scenes are lit, the score, the wardrobe and every single piece of set dressing has been thought of with great care. You will not find any of that distracting nonsense with wall clocks displaying times that make no sense with the story line. This is greatly appreciated because the best part of The Sacrament is the way the tension slowly builds. West has expertly set a pace that puts you on the same stress and emotional level as Sam and Jake. Just when you forget that you are watching a horror film, events take place that had me sitting with my mouth agape. This is all done without loud noises or obvious distractions and that is what makes it so effective. There are so many cinematic details that I would love to gush about for hours, but that would take all of the fun away from your personal viewing experience. The Sacrament is the real deal when it comes to intelligent, thought provoking thriller/horror films. Children, I do hope that you enjoy this film as much as I did.

The Innkeepers

Description from Netflix:
In this eerie ghost story, a venerable New England inn closes after a century in business, and the lodge’s two remaining employees are determined to uncover the truth about longtime rumors that the majestic mansion is haunted.

Things I liked:

1. Sara Paxton.  As Claire, she showed endless curiosity, boundless energy, wide-eyed wonder and abject horror.  At times – in her more awkward moments – she reminded me of a long-lost Deschanel, which is never a bad thing.  I had only seen her in a couple movies before this (The Last House on the Left and Shark Night), and she didn’t leave much of an impression on me.  She was great in this, though.  Far-and-away the best part of the movie.

2.  The look of the movie.  West is great at making a movie look really good.  It’s almost as if Wes Anderson is directing a horror movie.  I have the same praise of House of the Devil.  He has a great sense of how to use space.  Every shot looks perfect.

Things I didn’t like:

1. The Luke character.  He annoyed me to no end.  It’s quite possible that the actor (Pat Healy) did a really good job.  The reason doesn’t matter too much.  I found him absolutely insufferable.  I hated him, his faux-hawk, his superior attitude, and everything else.  Every time he was on the screen, I was annoyed.

2.  Once you get past the look of the movie, you realize there’s not a lot going on.  The movie itself is pretty boring.  No real tension to speak of for the bulk of the film.  The dialog isn’t good.  It’s not clever.  It’s not deep.  It’s not snappy.  It’s just boring.  There’s a little build during the ending, but the movie had completely lost me by that point.  In the end, I felt like I watched 80 minutes of two people running a hotel, 10 minutes of a slow-moving ghost story, and 10 minutes of messy, unfocused insanity.
The real problem of this film is the complete lack of tension.  Scenes don’t really seem to be building towards anything.  Very few things actually happen, and the build to these events is minimal at best.

3. Random, sloppy jump scares.  As a general rule, “slow-burn” movies don’t do jump scares.  And, if they do, they’re artfully done.  This movie decided to throw that rule out the window.  There were quite a few jump scares, and none of them were very well done.  Lots of random bumps and noises.  Just lazy, out-of-nowhere scares.

4.  Claire’s inhaler.  There were a number of scenes showing her using her inhaler, to the point where they all but telegraphed the ending.  This was the exact opposite of subtle.

5.  Some of the logic at the end of the movie.  They say things like, “We need to get out of this hotel,” then spend a couple minutes milling around the lobby.  I understand that you’re waiting for someone, but you should probably just wait outside.  There were a handful of moments like this at the ending, and they were all maddening.

6.  The ending.  Even leaving out the terrible logic employed, the ending was downright comical.  The ghosts were ridiculous.  If there had been a sense of building terror throughout the movie, the ending could have been very good.  But, since there was none of that, it was just boring.  It was just crazy stuff happening for the sake of having crazy stuff happen, not because there was an actual build-up to it.

Final thoughts:

West knows how to make a movie look good, but doesn’t know how to make a good movie.  I’m holding out hope that he learns.  He was listed as writer/director/editor of this film.  He needs to scale back a bit.  Work with a co-writer and co-editor.  He seems like he’s very close to making something amazing, but he’s missing a key ingredient somewhere.