Published Sep 21, 2013A distressing look at the hypnotic, suggestive influence a charismatic leader can exert over the desperate and weak-minded, Ti West's latest slow-burning tweak to a tired horror subgenre is undercut by its conceit.
Staging the infiltration of a religious cult as a faux-documentary feels like a half-baked approach; West doesn't fully commit to the realism gimmick, nor does he critique or add anything to the format. All the events of the story unfold in first-person, but are clearly structured by the hand of a filmmaker with an authorial voice. Furthermore, the action is set to an evocative, urgent tribal score obviously designed with the emotional manipulation of a movie audience in mind.
To (insufficiently) explain this display of conflicting methodologies, we have the film's disguise: an instalment of The Vice Guide to Travel gone horribly wrong. Upon receiving an invite from his recovering drug addict sister, a fashion photographer for Vice magazine books a trip to Eden Parrish, the "sober living" commune she's a member of. Curious to get the scoop on the mysterious compound, a couple of his co-workers tag along to document the experience.
Like all of West's features, something feels sinister from the outset of The Sacrament, but remains within the realm of the comfortably explicable for far longer than the average thriller, preferring to steadily ratchet up the tension while the focus remains on the quiet fear and unease found in everyday settings.
It's easy for the fake film crew to brush off the red flag of heavily armed guards greeting them at the entrance of the pacifist community after spending some time with the largely gracious and friendly residents. Each and every one of them just seems so happy.
Following a series of interviews conducted to orient the false filmmakers and, by proxy, the audience with the personality types and backgrounds of the people drawn to this idealistic, makeshift community, on-screen personality Sam (Simon Barrett, You're Next) and cameraman Jake (the very busy Joe Swanberg) have an appointment with the Jim Jones figure in charge. He's referred to in a low self-esteem super-cocktail of biblical righteousness and Elektra complex as "Father" by his faithful flock, especially the nubile ones.
Laudatory for putting the easily warped psyche of the insecure human mind at the forefront of an atypical horror thriller, the writing and acting in The Sacrament are strong enough that it doesn't necessarily benefit from the non-committal first-person format.
The associated, expectant build-up of anxiety works in the film's favour once the other shoe drops, but a more artful presentation would have made more of an impact. (Magnolia)