Genre: Horror; Thriller
Release Date: June 6th, 2014 (US limited); June 8th, 2014 (UK)
Starring: AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz
The horror genre’s latest aficionado Ti West is back with another vibrant take on spook-ville. The director employs a seemingly ever present found footage style that gives his film an engaging intimacy, but that ultimately struggles to uphold much legitimacy. West is an intriguing prospect, someone who will doubtless see his name hurtling towards the annals of scary cinema before long. The filmmaker’s outings are always at least partially efficient and that is once again the case here. It’s not that The Sacrament is half cooked — the movie is better than that — rather, what opens promisingly soon flounders at the mercy of the found footage Kool-Aid and never quite musters the strength to bounce back.
Under the topical guise of VICE, reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) joins cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) and photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) as they venture to the home of a mysterious cult hoping to find the latter’s missing sister. Upon arrival, the trio discover apparent serenity embodied wholly by said sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) whose sparky demeanour is overflowing with positivity. The group soon wander into an air of uncertainty and, unsurprisingly, all is not quite as it seems.
It should come as no surprise to viewers that West’s film is accomplished in a technical sense. The director knows how to work with mood and setting and here he combines the two with deft touch, even if the overall outcome is not completely satisfying. The Sacrament looks good, which is no mean feat given the gritty and sometimes turbulent parameters set out by the found footage genre. Those who have previously seen West’s segment in V/H/S will already be privy to his work alongside the eternal shaky cam — his Second Honeymoon narrative was arguably the best of a mediocre bunch — and that experience has paid off for the most part.
Where The Sacrament struggles is not in technical execution but instead when caught in the limited web of its shooting style. Sure, the simplicity surrounding found footage inherently induces a somewhat unlimited scope. Yet the genre has never really ascended beyond those conventions set out by The Blair Witch Project. Contrivance is abound and the usual questions rear their aching heads. Why are they still filming? Where does the second camera come from, and why wasn’t it used up until the point of necessity?
West and company attempt to get around these issues by inducing an added layer of realism. Something that gives off a more justifiable air. Our characters adopt the increasingly popular VICE tag, one supposed to lure us into a false sense of authenticity. It doesn’t really. The adoption of a company banner that we know of as genuine, in a film that we know for sure is fake, strikes as rather misguided. Events not caught on camera are textually narrated and the time occasionally flares up on screen in a documentary slant, by which point we’re calling out for a normal horror outing and not another flagrant attempt at pseudo-realism.
The shooting style can — and probably does — draw attention away from scares. Regardless, for a solid 50 minutes this is quite unnerving. The filmmakers successfully manipulate an obviously eclectic tone, one that is really quite odd. Sam and cameraman Jake, who we follow around for the most part, conduct everyday discussions with the cult residents when we’re instead expecting some form of kookiness. The landscape is usual and calm when it shouldn’t be and thus there manifests an offset nature, a decentralising vibe that is suitably unsettling.
The introduction of Father, the cult leader, also signals a swift switch away from normality. Played squirmingly well by Gene Jones, Father is eerily charismatic and utterly captivating. (“Everything just got caught up in this weird energy, I couldn’t think straight… he had a way about him”, recoils interviewer Jake). The man prescribes a nonchalant edginess, as if he is disconnected from those around him and too focused on the tainted greater good; the way he replies to Jake, his drawling laugh, that knowing grin — we are well aware that he’s up to no good but the residents are lost in his gaze. It is certainly not an inspired narrative, but Jones’ scenery-chewing execution is simply so fun to watch.
When we’re not enraptured by Father’s spell — he almost ventures into Scooby-Doo villain territory with his preemptive warnings (“You boys have a nice evening…”) — West shifts focus away from the haunting atmosphere to one fuelled by social commentary. Though in other hands this manoeuvre could be troubled by indulgence, West manages the informative titbits well without ever lecturing his audience. He’s an intelligent guy and gets his points across without condescension, choosing to single out our over reliance on technology and inability to be self-preserving.
It is a shame that the final act falters. Rather than capitalising on the creepy mood, the film turns towards gross out gore and action-influenced sequences. A prerogative that was previously guided by admirable restraint is quickly caught up in an unnecessary need to get things done, and therefore the subsequent end result is too generic to be impactful. An attempt at a shock-fest appears to infiltrate proceedings; it’s almost as if the outing substitutes Ti West for producer Eli Roth.
The Sacrament never quite usurps the constraints laid out by its choreography — in truth the genre is becoming increasingly stale. Despite this, and notwithstanding its blanket conclusion, the film is a superbly delivered piece. AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg and Amy Seimetz should be noted for their ever welcoming screen presences in a movie that is really quite hair-raising for an hour.
Images copyright (©): Magnolia Pictures, Magnolia Home Entertainment