The newest feature from horror filmmaker Ti West and executive producer Eli Roth, entitled The Sacrament, tells the story of a secluded religious commune run by a controlling leader referred to only as “Father” by the people of his community. The film draws quite heavily on the shocking true story of Jim Jones, the founder and leader of the Peoples Temple, who established a socialist society called “Jonestown” in a small region of Guyana with the initial intention of building a community outside of the capitalist system of the United States. Jones’ story took an extremely dark turn in 1978, however, when he orchestrated the single largest instance of mass suicide that the American population has ever seen, leaving over 900 residents dead in a single day. West’s film mirrors the events of Jonestown, bringing into focus a raw humanity which complicates our perspective of the historical events, and (perhaps accurately) repositions them as more of a mass-murder. This is a horror film that explores monsters as they exist in the real world, and while the harsh lens of realism marks something of a departure for the young writer/director/editor, it results in a thought-provoking and frightening film that will surely stay with you long after it is over.
The film centres around a fashion photographer named Patrick (Kentucker Audley) who enlists the help of two VICE Media correspondents (AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg) to travel with him to a secluded community named Eden Parish in order to try and retrieve his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) who recently moved there. The Parish is presented as a sort of utopian community, occupied by over a hundred American citizens who each sold and donated everything they had in order to live together as an isolated self-sustaining society, under the guidance and control of the enigmatic leader Father (Gene Jones). When the documentary team first arrives, everyone seems peaceful and content with their lives, despite the presence of armed guards at the exits and other suspicious elements. As is to be expected however, it becomes quickly apparent that things are not what they seem at Eden Parish, and that getting back home may prove to be more difficult than expected…
The film is presented in a fake-documentary style, assembled using the footage captured by the VICE filmmakers in the story, which allows for an intriguing twist on the typical found-footage style and results in a slightly more polished – and ultimately more enjoyable – final product. The cast is full of familiar faces from Ti West’s close circle of friends, including AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg and Amy Seimetz, all of whom starred together in Adam Wingard’s You’re Next last year alongside West himself. The result is a sense of genuine chemistry between the central characters which helps to drive much of the film, while Gene Jones’ phenomenal work in the role of Father provides the crucial other half of the equation that is necessary for this film to succeed. Thankfully, Jones (whose real name is eerily fitting for a film about this stuff) steals nearly every scene in which he appears, including the big interview sequence which introduces his character and remains a highlight of the entire film. Seimetz also shines in her supporting role as Caroline, with a shocking and highly emotional turn in the final act that results in one of the film’s most unforgettable moments.
The greatest strength of The Sacrament, however, is its ability to take a long and unflinching look at the extreme social and spiritual manipulation that exists within cults of this kind, and to effectively humanize the events, as well as the victims themselves. The horror element becomes exceptionally disturbing when you consider its faithfulness to the actual events of Jonestown, as many of the atrocities that occur in the final act of this film are based on actual historical accounts from that massacre. Thankfully, West does an admirable job of handling this controversial subject matter in a way that gets the point across without overdoing it for the sake of cinematic spectacle. The violence is confrontational and haunting, largely because it is committed out of desperation and paranoid fear, adding an air of greater tragedy to the enormous loss of life and causing this film to linger with us even after those vivid final aerial shots leave the screen.
The Sacrament is not exactly a “fun” time at the movies in a traditional sense – I can assure you that you won’t leave the theatre with a big smile on your face. It does, however, succeed in bringing to light some of the complexities behind one of the most shocking events in American history, while also functioning on its own as an efficient and thought-provoking little horror film. Overlooking a few minor gaps of logic in the final act, West has crafted a tight and harrowing exploration of the horrors that exist in the real world, where the monsters have human faces, and the Kool-Aid has a bitter aftertaste.
4 / 5 S T A R S
The Sacrament will hit theatres with a limited theatrical run starting on June 6th at Carlton Cinema in Toronto (20 Carlton St.), and will open again on June 27th at The Royal (608 College St.). Stay tuned for my interview with director Ti West!