Director Ti West has commanded a small but loyal cult after his previous films The House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2011) helped mark him as a leading figure of modern horror cinema. With his unique attention to detail, slow-burning scares and retro aesthetic, West’s outstanding efforts have hit refresh on a genre that had grown repetitive and tiresome. It’s surprising, then, that the progressive director has stuck with the style of his V/H/S (2012) vignette and opted for the found footage formula for his latest project. West’s new Eli Roth-produced horror feature, The Sacrament (2013), is a complex and satisfying psychological thriller set in a remote and seemingly peaceful commune in rural America.
Fashion photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) calls on his friends at Vice to help him find his missing sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), whom he knows has been hanging out at Eden Parish, an off-the-radar settlement that she’s been living at since completing a drug rehabilitation programme. Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (fellow director Joe Swanberg) agree to help, and intrigued by the idea of remote living, the trio come armed with cameras expecting to get a story out of the people who had made the decision to escape the rat-race. Upon arrival, the three are met with violent animosity from armed gunmen before being led into the self-sustained community by an over-enthusiastic and very healthy looking Caroline. At the heart of the parish is a mysterious, omnipresent leader known only as “Father” (a terrifying Gene Jones).
As Patrick reunites with his sister, his two friends explore Eden Parish interviewing residents about their lives on and off the commune. At once, the filmmakers are struck by the harmonious ethos within this man-made paradise. However, cracks soon begin to appear as sinister notes are exchanged and one by one residents approach the newcomers begging them to help with their escape. Although the film’s location is a fictional creation, the parallels between the commune and that which lay host to the real-life Jonestown Massacre of 1978 seem more than coincidental. The emphasis of The Sacrament , however, is on humanity, with the writing adding flesh to the bones of what one would formally regard as a statistic, thus bringing the viewer closer to the mentality of a charismatic sociopath.
West’s signature slow-burn approach is applied perfectly and we’re introduced to the mysterious leader initially through his loud booming voice alone, thus creating an intimidating God-like figure. When the enigmatic Father – played with great menace by Jones – sits down for an interview with the filmmakers, the reaction of his followers is wild and exalting, yet when the camera meets his shaded eyes, his unexpected normality becomes strikingly unsettling. The found footage format has been milked to death of late thanks to an endless outpouring of Paranormal Activity (2007) spin-offs, but here it’s used to fully immerse the viewer, ensuring that the characters speak directly to the audience and, with the removal of the third wall, throws them straight into the lion’s den to create maximum discomfort.
The Sacrament is the pure definition of a ‘cult film’, and whilst it may not appeal to its target market due to the avoidance of the sharp shocks and ghouls that have become synonymous with the genre, it does have the capacity to broaden the director’s fan-base. Here, West’s approach borrows the tension from Kevin Smith’s tragically underrated Red State (2011) but is more comparable with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) in terms of its subtle and gentle incline towards “the horror”. When the horror itself begins, thanks to West’s use of the first-person perspective and Tyler Bates’ haunting score, Eden Parish becomes wholly engulfing and an impossible place from which to escape.