Q: What the fuck did I just watch?
A: Ti West's masterful found footage horror film, The Sacrament.
Q: Eugh. Seriously? Another found footage film?
A: I'm not usually a fan either, but The Sacrament is the first film that actually benefits from being shot in that style. It doesn't just feel like a gimmick: the 'fake documentary' set up gives the proceedings added weight, and West is the first director who has successfully circumnavigated some of the sub-genre's flaws.
A: Yeah. For once this is a found footage film where the protagonists have a solid reason to not put down their cameras and just run the fuck away: they're journalists. They are determined to capture the horror that they are witnessing, even if it means they have to sacrifice their own safety. Even more convincing is the fact that they work for Vice, a company famous for going to great lengths to score interviews with subjects as unconventional as cannibal serial killers and paid assassins. If any website was going to release a documentary about a place like Eden Parish - even when said documentary features people committing suicide on camera - it would be Vice.
The fact that the protagonists of The Sacrament are professionals also allows West to avoid a lot of the nauseating camera work that makes so many other found footage films difficult to sit through. The film is beautifully shot, but so it should be: the men behind the camera know what they're doing. This plot device also explains away another plot hole in found footage films - ever notice how random Joes in horror movies pick up cameras and are suddenly granted the extraordinary powers to know what to shoot and how to shoot it? The way the camera whips around to what is most important in The Sacrament doesn't feel unreal: it feels perfectly plausible, and also allows West to frame the film's more shocking moments with real skill.
Even better, West takes time to establish exactly how the shots in his ersatz documentary are being set up. There's a really great little moment when Sam, one of our heroes, is preparing to interview the Parish's chillingly charismatic leader, Father. Before the interview even begins, he recruits one of his comrades to shoot close ups of the crowd who will serve as his audience. It's a breath of fresh air to be in the hands of a filmmaker who takes the time to ensure that everything in the film seems realistic. The cutaways to the crowd allow West to shoot the scene in a way that gives it impact without sacrificing the film's central style like so many other filmmakers lazily do.
Q: Is the film actually scary though?
A: It is. Just like his excellent feature The Innkeepers, West again proves that he can unnerve without having to use much gore - for all the death in The Sacrament's second half, there is very little of the red stuff. The real chills come from the intent behind the fatalities, not the fatalities themselves. The film has a wonderful sense of creeping dread. Just take a scene where Sam and Jake are sprung by a girl standing outside their cabin door. There's no musical stinger to accompany the image - the soundtrack is silent enough to create a genuine sense of unease.
Q: The film is pretty heavily inspired by The Jonestown massacre, isn't it?
A: Yes, but never in a way that seems distracting. The Sacrament makes some very obvious nods to the tragedy - like Jim Jones, Father supports multiculturalism, and there is also the suggestion in the film that he engages in sexual acts with his followers (Jones himself frequently slept with both males and females in his congregation.) Hell, Jones and Father even have the same taste in eyewear.
But despite the numerous similarities, Father is his own fully fleshed out character - he's not just a photocopy of a figure from the past. A lot of that is due to the exceptional work of Gene Jones: in a perfect world, Jones would receive an Oscar nod for his work (don't hold out on that one, though.) The actor turns in an exceptional performance - he has charisma in excess, which makes the devotion of his followers eerily believable. But when he needs to be chilling, he nails that too, and there's an exceptional, odd poignancy to his work in the last ten minutes or so of the film.
In fact, all of the performances are fantastic. Joe Swanberg and A.J. Bowen are understated but impressively so, and Amy Seimetz delivers the performance of her career to date as a lost soul clinging with disturbing determination to the only shred of hope she has left.
Q: You're giving this one your seal of approval, then?
A: Fuck yes. The Sacrament is a powerful examination of the dark side of faith. It's impeccably acted, brilliantly directed and its admirable decision to end the film exactly where it needs to be ended deserves serious commendation. There's no epilogue; no overwrought explanations of what we have just seen. The film just finishes, leaving us on a disturbingly powerful note.
In short: this is a movie that won't leave your mind any time soon.