Monday, May 12, 2014

The Sacrament - Or, I'll Gladly Join The Cult Of Ti West

I’ve loved Ti West ever since I stumbled upon The House of the Devil on Netflix one lonely night. I later saw The Innkeepers and loved it even more, and an obsession set in. So when I heard that West had a new movie coming out, and that it involved a cult, I was all in, ready for more of West’s signature slow-burn horror. What’s more, the film is populated with some of my favorite actors from You’re Next (in which West made a memorable appearance as well) – AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, and Amy Seimetz are all present. Basically, I would kill to be a part of that circle of collaborators.

The Sacrament involves three documentary filmmakers (yes, lord help us, it’s found footage… but more on that later) – Jake, Sam, and Patrick – who travel to an undisclosed location in search of the sister of one of the filmmakers, who has been living in a self-described “heaven on Earth” …known to most normal people as a cult. Maybe a commune if you’re being polite.

From the outset, the three main characters have their hackles raised, and with good reason. First of all, Patrick’s sister, Caroline, is a fresh-out-of-rehab recovering drug addict; she’s not exactly known for being a paragon of sound judgment. Second, when the three filmmakers arrive at the commune, known as “Eden Parish,” they’re met by several hostile men guarding the parish gates with machine guns – but why? The question is evaded by Caroline, who has an unwaveringly, if suspiciously defensive, sunny demeanor. She insists that everything is fine, and that the guns are merely a precaution – though against what, we don’t know.

Things only get weirder and more sinister from there, especially once the founder of Eden Parish, known only as “Father,” enters the picture. It’s clear early on where all of this is headed (but I won’t spoil it for those of you who don’t pick up on the clues right away), but that doesn’t make the sense of dread surrounding the characters any less palpable.

As per usual, Ti West does a good job of setting up a foreboding situation and carrying that feeling through until the very end. The film moved a little quickly for my taste – we’re seeing all of the events of Eden Parish unfold firmly from an outsiders’ perspective, and thus it doesn’t delve into the motives or mindsets of the parishioners themselves. Without that inside perspective, the events of the film seemed a bit confused and hurried. Or maybe I was just expecting the same creeping, gnawingly gradual buildup as West’s other films. It’s largely absent here, aside from having a good idea from the beginning that something terrible is coming, and relies on more typical horror tropes (such as an eerie mute girl whose intermittent appearances grow increasingly disturbing). Of course, the brisker pace of The Sacrament could very well appeal to those who found West’s earlier films boring or too slow.

Then there’s the found footage aspect. Argh. I’ve said it time and again, but I really wish this would stop being The Thing in horror. While the found footage format doesn’t necessarily hamper the storytelling of the movie, I think it would have been better off without it. You can still give a film a found footage “feel” without actually restricting yourself to one or two characters’ POV. Furthermore, The Sacrament lives in a land somewhere between the naturalism of found footage and the formalness of traditional cinema. There are moments when the characters’ lines seem entirely too scripted, and events that seem a little too stilted or contrived, and it doesn’t quite fit with the format. As always, I found myself questioning the motives of the man carrying the camera at the end of the movie. There’s also an unexplained few seconds where the movie is not in found footage, which bothers me, as it’s literally the only moment we don’t see from the characters’ cameras.

All that being said, the ending delivers a serious punch of restrained, mind-fuckingly real horror. It’s not my favorite Ti West film, but it’s a good movie nonetheless.

Final rating (out of 5):

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