Monday, May 12, 2014

The Sacrament (2013) Ripples of Jonestown

If you know the story of Jonestown, then you'll know the story of Ti West's intense The Sacrament.

For those who have no idea about the real-life horror that was Jonestown, here it is in a nutshell:  in 1978 paranoid cult leader Jim Jones creates a "utopia" in Guyana (with armed guards and restrictions on leaving), and when he feels threatened, he murders investigators and coerces his own followers to commit mass suicide.  Over 900 people - men, women, children - died whether they wanted to or not.  It's a chilling chapter in world history that should never be repeated.

Director Ti West is a modern master of suspense.  His horror films tend to be disturbing on a less visceral level because he has mastered the slow build, as he demonstrated with The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers. You know what's going to happen in the case of The Sacrament, but you're powerless to stop it from taking place.  It's a modern retelling of the actual incident, told through the lens of the found footage genre as a documentary piece for the edgy Vice news series.

Vice documentary makers Sam and Jake (horror superstars A. J. Bowen and Joe Swanberg) decide it would be a great story to accompany their friend and photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) to Eden Parish, a secluded commune in an unnamed country.  His sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), a recovering drug addict, has beckoned him to come and visit, to see how her life has turned around.  From the moment the three gentlemen arrive, they're dubious.  The tour guides have guns and seem suspicious of outsiders.  Caroline meets them at the gate, and everything seems better on the inside.  People are happy and thankful, hardworking and making no bones about their love for the commune's founder, known only as "Father" (Gene Jones).  An interview is arranged with Father, and the congregation is excited.  Well, most of them anyway.  One mother and her daughter don't exactly seem as crazy about the place as others, but show definite fear.  Sam's interview with Father is reserved, strange, and a little off-putting.  It's clear to Sam and his colleagues that they're being manipulated.  The congregation holds a party for the guys, but things don't seem right:  the woman and her child plead to be taken out of the commune, Patrick disappears with two girls who were basically commanded to initiate a little orgy with him, Caroline has her own dark side.  Of course, at the center of it all:  Father.  After a tense night, everything unravels in the morning as the guys decide they need to leave and Sam wants to take some of the congregation with him.  Everything seriously unravels in a Jonestown sort of way.

It's a familiar story, but West has made this movie his own.  Sure, we know the story before we hit "play," but it's how West tells it.  He paces the tension so expertly, and is complemented by his friends and cohorts Bowen and Swanberg - a lot of same-thinking people helped make this movie.  Tying the film together is Jones' performance as the charismatic "holy man" with a pleasant Southern drawl and a grandfatherly chuckle.  He's disarming and creepy all at once, playing a new version of Jim Jones with reserved dread.  The hold he has on these people - using religion as a whip - is frightening and yet something seen all too much in the real world. Thrown in great performances by Audley, Seimetz, and several members of the congregation who came off as real, desperate people.

It's not an easy movie to watch.  The plot is rooted in real life with no ghosts or demons, except for the ones that haunt people every day.  Chilling and well-crafted, be prepared to watch a palette-cleanser afterwards - and that's a compliment!

Meanwhile, here's the trailer: