Sunday, August 17, 2014

THE SACRAMENT (Review)


THE SACRAMENT (2013)

review by AARON ALLEN

Directed and written by Ti West

Starring Joe Swanberg, A.J. Bowen, Gene Jones, Amy Seimetz, Kentucker Audley
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Following the critical fanfare over House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2011) as well as his contributions to The ABC's of Death and the V/H/S anthologies, writer-director Ti West has certainly cultivated a cult following of fans in the horror community. With this week's home video release of his new film The Sacrament, a faux documentary about a Jonestown-esque tragedy, I wonder how his latest work will be received by horror fans. Will West's foray into POV "found footage" films convert still more to his congregation, or will it test the faith of the true believers?

Father (Gene Jones) knows best

Shot as if it were a documentary, The Sacrament follows a trio of Vice journalists who travel to a religious commune of American citizens living in a foreign socialist jungle community (the actual location is kept intentionally vague but it could be South America or even on the coast of Africa). The documentary project is inspired when Patrick (Kentucker Audley), a fashion photographer, receives a letter from his wayward sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) imploring him to come experience the Utopian clean-living community of EDEN PARISH where she now lives. Patrick is followed on his journey to Eden Parish by journalists Sam (A.J. Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) who document their experience penetrating the small, isolated socio-religious collective. At first it seems to be nothing but sunshine, love, progressive liberal values, and good old Christian charity on display in Eden Parish. Then they meet the town's charismatic leader, known only as Father (Gene Jones). From there, the "documentary" takes a dark turn as the idyllic commune proves itself to be just another paradise lost.

Visit Eden Parish and you'll never want to leave.
The Sacrament is clearly and obviously a fictionalized depiction of the horrific events that took place in Jonestown in November of 1978. Eden Parish is a stand-in for Jonestown, Guyana while Father, its enigmatic leader, is a clear double for Jim Jones, the unstable leader of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project. Jim Jones convinced over 900 people to leave America to set up a 3,000 acre Christian socialist community and then went on to convince 909 of his followers to commit mass suicide. Since what we know of the real Jonestown mass suicide comes from a forensic investigation that pieced together a few surviving eyewitness accounts, an audio recording, and photos of the aftermath, The Sacrament tries to imagine what would have happened if an outside camera crew had been there to witness and document the tragedy and the violence of such an event firsthand. 

Live as one. Die as one.
The Sacrament's inspiration in the Jonestown tragedy is both its greatest strength and its most critical weakness. On the one hand, its fictionalized dramatization of the trajectory of Jonestown -- I mean Eden Parish -- from altruistic commune to insane suicide cult is terrifying to experience from the point of view of Sam, Patrick, and Jake's cameras. Ti West uses the unflinching eye of the camera lens to  plunge the audience into a tragedy whipped up by religious fervor and doomsday paranoia. In this sense, The Sacrament yields some truly pulse-pounding and inventive first person POV horror scenes. The Sacrament is without a doubt one of the better POV footage films released in the last two years. On the other hand, if you know what went down in Jonestown back in 1978, then The Sacrament isn't going to hold any surprises for you. It pretty much follows the well-known historical events beat by beat (more or less). At the same time, the filmmakers do not have the budget to recreate the horrific scale of the real Jonestown. One of the most disturbing outcomes of Jonestown is that 300 children were murdered, forced to drink poison by their parents and caregivers. Ti West's film just doesn't have the running time nor resources to depict that kind of staggering loss of innocent life or really get into what motivates people in a cult to kill themselves and their loved ones. The Sacrament, therefore, lacks the punch of the actual history its attempting to fictionalize. I'm sorry, but if you're going to recreate the story of Jonestown under another name, you can't give well-informed audiences a Jonestown-light experience.

The final Sacrament
In press material for The Sacrament,  Ti West has said, “My goal was to create an elevated genre film that examines the last days in the life of a religious cult. . . . It is rare to find films like these that are more than just cheap thrills." West has undoubtedly exceeded in this goal: The Sacrament is a tense, thrilling, and un-glamorous dramatization of a human tragedy. However, if you're familiar with the history of Jonestown and you understand where the phrase "drink the kool-aid" originates, then The Sacrament will offer you absolutely nothing new to see. You'll anticipate every development well before it happens. This writer thinks West would have better served the subject matter by creating a historic Jonestown mini-series rather than trying to condensing the magnitude and complex factors at work in Jonestown into a mere 99-minute thriller.

The Sacrament will be available August 19th in Canada through Video on Demand, iTunes, DVD, and Blu-ray from Video Service Corp. DVD and Blu-ray bonus features include:
  • CREATING THE SACRAMENT: REVEALING THE VISION
  • WORKING WITH THE DIRECTOR: THE TI WEST EXPERIENCE
  • PREPARING FOR TAKEOFF: BEHIND THE SCENES HELICOPTER SEQUENCE
  • AXS TV: A LOOK AT THE SACRAMENT
  • COMMENTARY WITH WRITER/DIRECTOR TI WEST, AJ BOWN AND AMY SEIMETZ 

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