The Sacrament (2013)

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I was a little skeptical about the prospect of actually enjoying this movie, because my only contact with filmmaker Ti West were his shorts in the utterly rubbish anthology films “The ABCS of Death” and “V/H/S.” Still, the premise and the trailer looked promising, so I watched it on Netflix Instant (thank God for streaming.) After seeing it twice in the last month, I have to say I am very impressed with what the director managed to do here. The build-up is slow-going to say the least, but there were extended periods in the movie where I was glued to the seat, simultaneously fascinated and unnerved by this rarity- a found footage film that seemed altogether too real and rang true as a horror movie with smarts, not just as gimmicky trash.

Journalists Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) communicate with a fashion photographer named Patrick (Kentucker Audley, what a name!), who confides in them that his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz,) who has a history of drug abuse and irresponsible behavior, has ‘found herself’ in a remote religious sect. Obviously curious about his strange story, the duo join Patrick to fly over to visit Caroline in ‘Eden Parish,’ a community that lies isolated in the jungle. Vowing to film their experiences and share it with Sam and Jake’s readers, the three men have no idea how much trouble they’re about to get themselves into.

This viewer found the acting to be surprisingly good for this kind of movie. AJ Bowen gave a good performance as Sam, an easy going good-guy who finds himself plunged into the heart of darkness. Amy Seimetz is creditable as Patrick’s ditzy sister, under whose cheery exterior lies a undercurrent of mania and confusion. But the actor who takes the cake as the most convincing and award-worthy is Gene Jones, who had a small part in the critically acclaimed “No Country for Old Men.” Here he plays the utterly appalling but charismatic cult leader ‘Father,” who has seemingly won the utter respect and admiration of the people of ‘Eden Parish.” Jones’ scene where ‘Father’ is interviewed by AJ Bowen’s ‘Sam’ is brilliant on so many levels, and both actors knock it out of the ballpark with that one conversation.

“The Sacrament” is heavily inspired by the Jonestown Massacre, and is made particularly potent by the realization that events like this mark our history. I remember seeing a TV program on David Koresh and wondering how so many people could be brainwashed by a douchebag whose obviously cuckoo for cocoa puffs. One of the things that stays with me is the last moments of the children the police were frantically trying to get out of the compound. The kids were calm and compliant moments before burning to death in the place that was both their home and their prison. Did things have to go down that way?

Chilling in its psychological and sociological implications, “The Sacrament” is a real breath of fresh air as both a modern horror movie and a found-footage scare film. Driven by a frightening performance by Gene Jones as a persuasive cult leader, this film ratchets up the intensity that comes with viewing a situation like this to a nearly unbearable level. It’s not for the faint of heart, and those who seek cheerier entertainment look elsewhere, but horror fans that seek smarts in modern horror should love it.

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