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VENICE, Italy – Director Ti West built a following on old-school 1970s and ’80s-influenced horror with The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, while producer Eli Roth is associated with more contemporary strands of splatter and torture porn. Unexpectedly, The Sacrament follows neither of those paths. Less a strict horror entry than a psychological chiller, the film is too directly inspired by the 1978 Jonestown Massacre to pack much surprise as to where it’s headed. But it makes savvy use of the well-worn found-footage format, modulating its creepy scenario with considerable skill.
The docu-style conceit here is that New York fashion photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) is concerned about his sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz). She checked into a Mississippi sober-living community after years of struggling with drugs and has since been whisked off with the entire group to an undisclosed foreign country. Patrick has received an invitation to come visit her, with complicated plane and helicopter instructions to get him to the secret destination without actually telling him where it is. He ropes in his colleagues from multimedia outlet Vice, investigative reporter Sam (A.J Bowen) and videographer Jake (Joe Swanberg), to come along and document the journey.
Given that only Patrick was expected, there’s friction when the three of them arrive in a rural area that appears to be somewhere in South America. (Savannah, Ga., served as the stand-in location.) Separated from the airstrip by 1.5 miles of thick vegetation, Eden Parish looks less-than-welcoming, with armed guards at the gates blocking the visitors’ path and ordering them to stop filming. But Caroline shows up all sunny and serene to reassure them everything’s cool. While she’s cautious about access, she promises to do what she can to get them an interview with the man known as “Father,” the guru who leads the self-sustaining Christian socialist community.
With modest cottages and a pavilion for group gatherings, production designer Jade Healy has constructed what seems a fairly accurate facsimile of the layout in published photographs of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, the compound set up by Jim Jones in Guyana.
While Patrick goes off for catch-up time with sis, Jake and Sam are encouraged to explore freely. They meet people of all ages and types who profess to feeling happier and more unburdened than ever before, explaining that they sold their homes and donated the proceeds to the church to help build the compound. They also speak with rapturous affection of Father and the blessings of their new family.
Before long, the Vice guys are forced to admit that it’s not the hippie commune they expected but perhaps a viable alternative to the pressures of modern society. The one disconcerting note is an encounter with a mute girl whose mother tells them that they speak only with the people Father wants them to speak with and hear only what he wants them to hear.
Caroline announces that Father will grant them a half-hour interview onstage that evening before a special sunset celebration and musical concert to welcome the guests. The beloved leader is not the rock-star presence the community members’ worshipful testimonials led the journalists to expect. But, as played with wily intelligence and insinuating charm by character actor Gene Jones, the stout, middle-aged, white Southerner is a powerfully charismatic figure whose folksy manner hides an able hand at deflecting awkward questions.
Manipulating the interview to suit his own needs, Father talks about poverty, violence, greed and racism – “the foundations of a cancerous society” – explaining that the aim of his church is to distance its followers from those ills. Upfront about his distrust of the media, he somehow makes Jake misplace his journalistic skills.
These crucial establishing scenes are expertly handled by West, making it easy to understand how cults can flourish by recruiting damaged or fragile people and promising a protective environment in which to escape their woes. Even jaded Jake and Sam begin to buy into it.
But it doesn’t require the disturbing rumble of Tyler Bates’ music underneath the jubilant gospel singing of the concert to detect something sinister in the air. Further indication comes in a note reading “Please help us,” a small number of terrified residents whispering that they are being held against their will, and in the realization that Patrick was lured there by Caroline to help access their parents’ wealth for expansion funds.
Aware that they are snooping around later that night, Father warns, “If you put your hand into the dog’s bowl don’t be surprised if you get bit.” The following morning, confusion erupts, with Caroline blaming the intrusive presence of the outsiders for the sudden unrest.
Anyone vaguely familiar with the horrific events of Jonestown and the origin of the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” will be several steps ahead of what ultimately happens, but that’s hardly the point. West’s fictionalized account can’t match the devastating facts as presented, say, in Stanley Nelson’s 2006 documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. But his heightened genre treatment brings unsettling focus to the escalation of panic and despair, not to mention the evils of an unchecked messianic ego.
The ominous, pulsating drone of Bates’ music, the increasing agitation of West’s editing, and the raw, video-reporter edge of Eric Robbins’ nervy camerawork all contribute to manipulating the atmosphere into one of engulfing dread in a film that gets under the skin and stays there. Hard-liners may have issues with the decision not to stick too rigorously to the found-footage angle. But the Vice coverage is more a setup device than a binding framework, so a looser approach to it as chaos takes hold seems justifiable.
Gene Jones’ unwavering conviction in the pivotal role of Father is essential to The Sacrament’s gut impact, as well as its thought-provoking depiction of brainwashing in the guise of something holy. And the nerve-racking documentary realism of the film owes its success to the naturalistic performances of the four leads, all of them repeat West collaborators.
Among their many overlapping credits, Swanberg, Bowen and Seimetz all appeared with West in the recent home-invasion thriller You’re Next, while Bowen and Audley were leads (along with Kate Lyn Sheil, who pops up briefly) in Seimetz’s debut feature as director, Sun Don’t Shine.
Production: Arcade Pictures, Worldview Entertainment
Cast: Joe Swanberg, A.J. Bowen, Kentucker Audley, Amy Seimetz, Gene Jones, Kate Lyn Sheil
Director-screenwriter-editor: Ti West
Producers: Eli Roth, Jacob Jaffke, Peter Phok, Christopher Woodrow, Molly Conners
Executive producers: Stuart Ford, Sarah Johnson Redlich, Maria Cestone, Hoyt David Morgan, Eric Newman, Ti West
Director of photography: Eric Robbins
Production designer: Jade Healy
Music: Tyler Bates
Costume designer: Wendy Moynihan
Sales: IM Global/CAA
No rating, 101 minutes
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