Two of the bigger presences in horror in both mainstream and independent horror communities are Eli Roth and Ti West. Roth came made his mark with the humor and gore-filled Cabin Fever and subsequent Hostel films while West was cutting his teeth with indie horror movies like The Roost and Trigger Man. The Sacrament isn’t the first time these two have crossed paths, as West was tapped to direct the sequel to Cabin Fever, which West has all of disowned involvement in due to studio interference. Even if hearing Roth and West’s names together on a movie might initially cause assumptions on what happened when they get involved together, I can tell you that The Sacrament is nothing like what either have done before, and it’s incredibly unsettling.
Set up as a VICE style immersion documentary, our host Sam (AJ Bowen) tells our viewers that another staff member Patrick’s (Kentucker Audley) sister has gotten involved in “clean living” commune that has relocated to a foreign country. Both wanting to find out what kinds of things his sister is involved in and wanting to explore what kind of retreat would up and relocate from Mississippi to a foreign country, Sam takes the opportunity to explore the “Eden Parish”. Although initially met by armed guards, the vibe of the community shifts once Sam, Patrick, and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) finally meet Patrick’s sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz). Even though the living conditions are barebones and the idea of this group of people abandoning their lives to live here, everyone the film crew talks to genuinely seem happy. The leader of the group, who is referred to as “Father” (Gene Jones), even grants Sam an interview. It’s easy to see how Father could convince a group of people to move to a foreign country with him, as he’s equal parts charismatic, mysterious, and intimidating. Just as Sam and Patrick start feeling like maybe Caroline is in good hands, the journalists learn that things aren’t quite as they seem, but just how accurate were their assumptions and just how much danger could the Eden Parish possibly cause?
While introducing the film, West made sure to remind everyone to get rid of their preconceived notions they might have about the film, but the filmmaker’s strength really show through. Even though the format doesn’t really lend itself to long establishing shots that West fans might be familiar with, the pacing of the movie really focuses on the big payoff at the end as opposed to cheap scares. Roth has a reputation for gore and laughs, which are both present in the film but in unexpected ways. Are there scenes of graphic violence? Sure, but not in form of “torture porn” that you might be thinking of. There are plenty of laughs, but rather than coming from snippy insults or witty references, the humor comes from the main cast having to deal with situations outside of their comfort zone. The film is quite different from anything the two have done before, but there are familiar elements from their filmmaking styles that remind you why these two have earned their success.
Since you can’t really rely on gorgeous cinematography or mind-blowing special effects to sell a point of view style movie, it really all falls on the cast. Luckily, West brought in faces both new and old to create a group of characters to humanize the story and demonize the humanity. Bowen, who genre fans have seen as a villain in quite a few genre films, is just as skeptical as he is accepting to everything Eden Parish has to offer. As someone who’s seen him in the villain role countless times, I was happy to see him show that he can be as endearing and charming as he is intimidating, and great to see the chemistry between him and Swanberg. You can tell these two have collaborated before, as there’s just as many funny moments with dialogue and unspoken moments as their banter. Amy Seimetz might seem like she’s just playing a drugged up hippy, but when you realize that she’s in a clean-living community, you envy what could cause her character that state of euphoria and driving the viewer’s intrigue even further. As great as it is to see familiar Ti West faces, adding Gene Jones into the mix was a stroke of genius. Jones is compelling, mysterious, terrifying, and makes you wonder which Jones it is you’re really watching.
West has always been great at building tension and controlling a film’s atmosphere, but that’s normally taking place in a house or a hotel. This time, the paranoia of the entire commune extends even further than the gates of the compound and feels like the paranoia and danger extends outside of the compound and like it could reach the rest of the world, including the audience. I’ve always loved horror movies where people you think you can trust are the ones you have to fear, so The Sacrament was right up my alley. The film can both be taken at face value or you can read into it as much as you want, but West never really places any sort of “blame” on any sort of belief system, challenging the viewer to confront their own personal beliefs and what they interpret as the “other”. Certainly not an enjoyable experience, as it has two of West’s and Roth’s most disturbing death sequences yet, but it has elements to appeal to genre and non-genre fans alike. It marks a step forward for West as a filmmaker, distancing himself traditional horror movie tropes, and makes you wonder what subject he’ll tackle. If this review sounds a little too positive, I’m just going to blame it on drinking the Kool-Aid.
Also check out Mike Pereira’s positive review here.
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