For detractors of horror, the controversial genre is at best an opportunity to indulge our most base instincts, and at worst a morally corrosive form of entertainment that poisons our very souls; to proponents, it offers a tangible means of glimpsing our darkest fears, in the process helping us to better understand our core being. Exploitation, on the other hand, is a form of entertainment that even fans will profess has little social or psychological value; it exists solely for the sake of prurience.
Though distinctly different in enough ways to fill a film-school thesis or a media-studies book, horror and exploitation occasionally make for comfortable bedfellows in the world of cinema. In Ruggero Deodatoís much maligned Cannibal Holocaust, for example, the two were combined to offer a shocking meditation on the brutality of cultural imperialism.
Having built his formidable reputation on the foundation of retro-fueled supernatural-horror films such as House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, young genre star Ti West is widely seen as one of his generationís true horror visionaries. But his inspiration appears to have withered, at least momentarily, with The Sacrament -- a lazy, misguided attempt to turn one of the worldís most tragic mass suicides into entertainment for the general public.
The plot centers on VICE Media reporter Sam (A.J. Bowen) and his loyal cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg), who learn that their photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) has a drug-addicted sister named Caroline (Amy Seimetz) who has retreated to a remote religious community in an unknown location outside of the U.S. Sam and Jake convince Patrick that thereís a story to be told here, and the trio board a flight bound for the secluded Central American compound in order to locate Caroline and get her to return home.
From the moment they land, though, something seems amiss. They must immediately board a helicopter thatís been hired to fly them to the undisclosed location, and when they eventually arrive and their drivers show up armed with assault rifles, they begin to wonder if theyíve made a big mistake. That doubt starts to dissipate when Caroline appears at the front gates, happy, healthy, and eager to show them around the community. Dubbed Eden Parish, it appears to be a modern-day utopia populated by a caring, tight-knit, and deeply religious group. Intrigued, Sam asks for an interview with Eden Parishís charismatic founder, a man nicknamed Father (Gene Jones) by his flock. That request is granted, on the condition that it is conducted in front of the entire congregation; later that night, Sam sits across from Father to find out just how all of this came into being.
The mood begins to curdle, however, when Father slyly turns the focus of the interview back on Sam, manipulating the conversation to further justify the groupís decision to turn their backs on society. Later, when darkness falls, Patrick disappears and an uncomfortable situation turns downright sinister. As it turns out, some of Eden Parishís inhabitants are being held against their will, and when their attempts to leave with the VICE crew the following morning are denied, Father gathers everyone around for one last act of defiance.
Anyone aware of the story of Jonestown will know exactly what happens next, and thatís precisely the problem with The Sacrament. Yes, director West is also credited as the screenwriter of the film (as well as its editor), but with precious few exceptions, the scenario plays out almost exactly how it did when U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan paid his fateful visit to Jim Jonesí Guyana retreat. In fairness to his talents as a filmmaker, West does a commendable job of creating an atmosphere of dread at the compound, although to viewers who have studied the case, listened to the tapes, or seen such documentaries as Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, The Sacrament offers no additional insight into the compelling psychological manipulations employed by Jones to exploit his followersí weaknesses. This is basically a familiar story with a found-footage twist, one that counts on our willingness to witness such abhorrent sights as a woman injecting a crying infant with cyanide or a desperate mother slitting her daughterís throat to prevent them both from being shot to death.
Everyone in the cast is assured and competent, with Gene Jones commanding his scenes with folksy assurance and Seimetz mesmerizing as the sister who appears to have found her salvation. Even Bowen, essentially an extension of the viewersí prejudices, manages to impress as his cynicism evolves into admiration and ultimately terror. Regardless, the lingering knowledge that much of whatís depicted here actually happened in real life, to real people who gave up everything in their search for peace, casts a dangerously disingenuous spell over the whole endeavor -- especially given that key lines of dialogue are explicitly ìborrowedî from those haunting recordings. The Sacrament does a cinematic disservice to the weak and vulnerable souls who lost their lives by placing them in the hands of a con man who hid his true nature behind a Bible, and while thereís value to be gained in learning from that event, thereís little to be gained from watching Westís attempt to cash in on their tragedy.
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- Released: 2013
- Rating: R
- Review: For detractors of horror, the controversial genre is at best an opportunity to indulge our most base instincts, and at worst a morally corrosive form of entertainment that poisons our very souls; to proponents, it offers a tangible means of glimpsing our d… (more)