Sordid tales inspired by factual human atrocities make for more disturbing horror films than supernatural fiction. Boogiemen don’t hide in closets. They roam around in the real world looking to carry out their despicable plans. Some of them have mastered the ability to persuade others and to exude benevolence while hiding under a coat of bad intentions. They, the ones who don’t operate alone, are the most dangerous. Malevolent cult leaders like Charles Manson use senseless violence as their driving force. Others like Jim Jones twisted religious beliefs to validate their evil delusions.
Given the magnitude of the tragedy and the willingness of most members to partake in the madness, the Jonestown Massacre remains as disconcerting evidence of irrational devotion. Pairing this abhorrent episode with the terrifyingly immersive capabilities of found footage horror, Mumblecore director Ti West brings such murderous fervor to the 21 century in "The Sacrament". In this fictionalized version of events the promise land is called Eden Parish, located in an unspecified tropical developing country. Since there was a need for cameras to be involved, it makes sense that the three outsiders are journalists from New York. When Patrick (Kentucker Audley), agrees to visit his drug addicted sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) in the paradisiacal salvation commune, his co-workers Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (none other than Joe Swanberg) decide to document the trip for a future story.
Eager to discover the secrets behind the secretive religious group, the men arrive in town only to be escorted by armed guards to the gates of the isolated compound. Caroline welcomes them and for a while things seem uninterestingly normal. Nevertheless, while Patrick catches up with his sister, the other two need to get some useful material. They only have until early the next morning, otherwise their helicopter ride will leave without them. This detail surely raises the stakes. Everyone Sam interviews appears to be grateful to have been saved. Evidently most residents come from violent and criminal backgrounds desperate for redemption. They were the ideal targets for Father (Gene Jones), the holy figure that reigns over Eden Parish and its submissive members. As if he was God on Earth, everything he preaches becomes unquestionable mandates.
Helped by Caroline’s intervention and good standing with Father, Sam is granted an interview. Their chat is to be held in public for the congregation to witness. During their conversation, the New Yorkers are faced with a man who transpires uncanny confidence. Charismatic and eloquent, his presence makes Sam uneasy. Certainly, the oblivious reporters don’t know what’s coming to them.
Do not go into “The Sacrament” expecting to instantly be cheaply scared at every turn. West takes his time submerging the viewer into this obscure world of misguided faith. Normalcy coated in almost unbearable tension builds up to an unsettling conclusion, which is twice as affecting because of the realism behind it. With the body count rising until the final minutes, nightmares should be seriously considered as a side effect. Yet, even if the murderous nature of the cult is reason enough to be horrified, Father’s calm and conniving demeanor embodies tangible perversion. He is pure evil in the flesh. Needless to say, Gene Jones sharp performance is what ties the piece together. It must not be easy to play a megalomaniac who people love without reservations.
Unanswered questions will prevail. No scientific reasoning could ever decipher why a person, even those with nothing to lose, give themselves up to a depraved, but articulate man. In terms of its potential as an intelligent genre work, the film’s economic aesthetic works to its advantage. TI West has managed to translate the minimalist style of his cinematic pal Joe Swanberg into the horror realm. “The Sacrament” doesn’t reinvent, but refreshes an insane occurrence in a sophisticated fashion. Gore for the sake of gore is not West’s goal. His latest, just like "The House of the Devil", focuses on a slow and psychosocial road to death, which sometimes ends up being more painfully satisfying. Let yourself be disturbed. Drink the poison, Father knows best.