If you had no idea who Ti West was or seen his previous horror masterpiece The House of the Devil, you might stumble upon The Sacrament on late night cable. After the first five minutes you might also think with its high gear rescue premise paired with relaxed beats from The Knife’s “Heartbeats” that you’re in for a zany adventure with slapstick shenanigans and a happy ending. The kind of movie where your female friends who watch The Notebook on repeat say “Oh, that’s a cute movie!” And you would be dead wrong. Ti West doesn’t do cute movies. The part of West’ mind that creates his horror films probably takes cute, shoves it into a blender while it’s still alive, shreds it to a million bloody pieces then liquefies it in a microwave before serving it to small children, turning them into cannibals. THAT is what Ti West’ brand of horror does.
The story revolves around a group of magazine reporters who embark on a search-and-rescue mission for a fellow contributor’s missing sister. The details they have are sketchy…they know she was a troubled girl who seems to have found a mysterious but warm community in an isolated destination they have to be secretly flown to…and they’re greeted by hostile men with machine guns. By this point, “Heartbeats” isn’t playing anymore. They find the sister, Caroline (played wonderfully and convincingly by Amy Seimetz), who gives them a tour of Eden Parish, a rural community where all the residents attest to it being a “heaven on Earth” and proclaim their love for the man who created it all, a mysterious figure they refer to only as “Father.” So everything seems hunky dory on the surface. And it’s not like things go horribly awry in situations where hundreds of people worship a man called Father, right? And, yes, you guessed it…right about at this point things take a Machiavellian turn for the worst–the absolute worst and what unfolds culminates in one of the most horrific things we have seen onscreen in some time, mostly because of its biting realism and echoes of true life historical tragedies.
While some of the performances are essentially placeholders, the real heavy lifting is done by Seimetz and the man who plays Father, Gene Jones. Father is the character who had to be portrayed flawlessly as we, the audience, would have to buy in that this was the kind of man who could convince hundreds to follow him on an excursion to the middle of nowhere and set up a communal camp. Jones simply nails it. He came to play, fusing energy and a soft-spoken but confident nature in Father. However, most of all, we are able to see what his followers cannot: This man has a sinister side beneath those saggy cheeks and aviator shades. Whoever played Father had to be able to be a fireman Dalmatian on the outside with a rattlesnake soul on the inside and Jones perfectly executed this.
Ti West did a remarkable job writing this script. I have to admit, I don’t think I was expecting a script this razor sharp and well paced, but it shows a lot of growth from this rising star of the horror genre. The strength of his writing was really well demonstrated in the interview Father gives the reporters in front of his followers. It’s really the only scene that allows the viewer to get a glimpse of Father and see how he spins his web so intricately, it even tangles up the interviewer. West’ direction is also very steady and moves scenes along with efficiency yet it is not nearly as heavily stylized as seen in The House of the Devil. The film’s biggest flaw is the same as it is with every found footage movie going back to the earliest offerings of the genre and even with its crown jewels such as Cloverfield and Chronicle: At a certain point it becomes completely implausible than anyone would still be filming. And don’t get me wrong, I myself have worked in production and know that the gear is the most important thing, but when machine gun bullets are whizzing by you? And after you’ve been stabbed in the shoulder and bleeding out, are you really going to stop and pick up a camera?! No fucking way.
This is, however, an excellent film and one that marks improvement for Ti West, demonstrating yet again that he is rightfully becoming a name synonymous with the horror genre. He is producing great work within said genre that continually pushes limits, thoroughly entertains from start to finish and, most importantly, makes familiar story lines feel much less recycled than they probably are. His brand of horror is about as sick, twisted and deranged yet also well crafted as horror buffs can hope for. More please!