Fantastic Fest Review: THE SACRAMENT Makes Found Footage Look Good

Brian loves the new Ti West film.

Since Ti West clearly marches to the beat of his own drum when it comes to his approach to modern horror, it's probably not too much of a surprise that his two best films, House of the Devil and now The Sacrament, revolve around folks who aren't exactly the sort of people you'd expect to run into at the store. But where House's slow burn kept the horror at bay for the most part, Sacrament deftly puts the audience on edge almost from the start - when things go bad, they're actually just getting worse.

Using the real show, Vice, as its backdrop, heroes Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) become alerted to a clean living, "hippie" community after their friend Patrick (Kentucker Audley) tells them about how his sister Caroline has dropped everything and cut off almost all communication with him and the rest of their family in order to join them. Convinced it would make for a great episode of their show, the two men tag along when Caroline (Amy Seimetz) arranges for him to visit her in the community. A helicopter takes them there and they are greeted by thugs with machine guns - the first visual sign that things aren't as peaceful as Caroline has made it sound.

However, the score by Tyler Bates has already put us on edge. In a manner much like Prince of Darkness, the ominous, lengthy opening cue made me uneasy before they even got on the helicopter, let alone entered the community and began talking to a few of its residents. While the word "cult" is never uttered in the film (even by the skeptical Sam), it's clear that Jonestown, the Branch Davidians, and others were on West's mind when he crafted his script, and thus even stripped of its prestigious genre credits (Eli Roth is a producer - I'm guessing Cabin Fever 2 didn't come up much during the shoot) you would be correct to assume that things get dark.

And they do so surprisingly early. I think West's films are hit or miss, but they all share a common trait in that there's a lengthy build up to a very quick finale, and being that this is technically a "found footage" movie in that the entire thing unfolds from the POV of two cameramen (Patrick eventually joins Jake in shooting the proceedings; until that point Swanberg is rarely seen), I wasn't expecting anything to change. Most FF films by design have to withhold too much action from their first hour or so, as things can't get too hairy or the audience will turn on the film with shouts of "Why are they still filming?!?!" And while there IS a touch of that here (and what seems to be an occasional third camera, though nothing nearly as egregious as fellow Roth production The Last Exorcism), it doesn't really matter, because Sam and Jake are alerted to the sinister goings on at the compound right around the halfway point, ramping up the tension (and yes, action) far sooner than the average FF OR West film.

But before that, they meet up with the Father (Gene Jones), the leader of the compound who has surprisingly granted them an interview (in full view of the entire group) despite his distrust of them and the media in general. The interview starts cordial enough, but Sam quickly loses the upper hand, and even scarier - what Father is saying actually makes sense, which can make you feel queasy when you KNOW that his beliefs will eventually lead to tragedy. As Sam points out later, the place isn't for him, but he gets why it IS the best way to live for the others. Jones only has a handful of scenes in the film, but they are powerful and terrifying - you almost start to understand why his followers do what he says at a key moment near the end.

I would rather not say more than I already have, but I will say that things get pretty damn grim. This is not a fun horror film by any means; Swanberg and Bowen display a little of the great chemistry they had in You're Next, but it can barely even be considered "comic relief" - just natural, character driven dialogue that might elicit a smirk. According to West at the film's post-screening Q&A, it originally ended even DARKER than it does now, and I'm pretty sure if they went with their first instinct this would be the most depressing, gut-punch of a film since Red, White and Blue.

It's a shame that the found footage "genre" has become so cluttered that some might write this off without a second thought (THIS asshole even said he wouldn't watch such films anymore!*), and West is an acquired taste himself. But it transcends both stigmas; more "stuff happens" in this film than his others combined (not counting CF2, if you DO count it among his filmography), and the documentary approach makes perfect sense 99% of the time - and you'll be too invested in the proceedings to notice the other 1%.

*Just a shameless plug; I actually singled out Sacrament as one I was still excited about.