Some sentences, once heard, immediately make you want to put a pistol in your mouth to reset the memory. “‘The Sacrament’ is a direct to Netflix found footage horror movie produced by Eli Roth” had me cocking the hammer and fidgeting with the trigger worse than Martin Riggs in ‘Lethal Weapon’. Everything about that film’s description is horrible. It’s the English language version of haggis.
Let me be clear, at one point, each component was, to a point, revolutionary. Found footage was unheard of before ‘The Blair Witch Project’, Eli Roth brought the gorey shock back to mainstream films, and having a digital platform to release lower budget films was a boon to indie filmmakers. Somewhere along the line, all of these were ruined.
Paranormal Activity sequels, Apollo 18, VHS, Survival of the Dead, Cloverfield, REC (and the remake Quarantine), varying quality aside, the found footage genre is too supersaturated to be unique anymore and it’s being used as an excuse to justify a small budget rather than attempt to be unique. The use of “torture porn” like ‘Saw’ and ‘Hostel’ is synonymous with Eli Roth. You can’t fault someone who tries to break away from their stigma, except Eli Roth hasn’t tried very hard to disassociate his name from the over the top gore films that people have grown tired of. As for direct to Netflix movies…well, have you seen ‘Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead’?
With everything going against it, why did I see it? The same reason people sniff something rank when someone say “Here. Smell this.” You don’t want to, but half of your brain says “Is it really so bad that it warrants a demonstration?” ‘The Sacrament’ contained so many elements that would drive away any reasonable person, that I just had to see how this shit show came together.
‘The Sacrament’ is about three guys from Vice magazine who head to a village in another country, founded by a religious leader and his followers, after one of them is invited by his sister. Once there, they find that what’s on the surface doesn’t tell the whole story. There are those that…you know what? It’s Jonestown. It’s fucking Jonestown! Spoiler alert! If you don’t want that ruined, stay away from reviews like this, as well as fucking Wikipedia!
It’s not exactly an event for event telling of the massacre, rather it’s an interpretation of what occurred. The major beats are hit: outsiders enter the compound (just like Congressman Leo Ryan and his crew), they find out that there are two groups of people, those who are completely into the lunacy and those who want to leave but aren’t allowed, the crazed leader orders everyone to drink cyanide laced kool-aid, and those who don’t are shot. Since I already knew how the story would develop, on top of everything else, this should have been the final nail in the coffin for this film for me. But it wasn’t. Actually…
…I liked this movie.
That’s right! Just like how everyone thought I was shitting all over ‘Snowpiercer’ before revealing that I actually like it, everything up until now is just preparation for my ultimate thoughts. I’m sure I’m not alone thinking these things and I wanted to address them before I got into the movie proper. Despite having EVERYTHING against it, I believe ‘The Sacrament’ was a good film.
The actors are spot on. The three leads Jake, Sam, and Patrick (played by Joe Swanberg, A J Bowen, and Kentucker Audley) are believable. They may seem young given their profession, except I believe that most people see every writer and journalist as some grey haired adventurer, running through war zones and taming vaginas (or is that just me? fuck, I’m watching too many movies). Most writers I know are around their age, making it easy for me to slip into their shoes. They’re complex as people, yet they each have a simple trait that the audience can get behind. One’s more cynical, another is a cautious optimist, and one’s there for his family. They don’t know what’s going on, whether they should be impressed or frightened, and through them, the tension of the unknown is conveyed from scene to scene.
Great as these guys are, the real show stopper is Gene Jones as Father. The was he switches back and forth between his gracious and fatherly approach to his congregation and the downplayed contempt he has for the media makes it feel like he was born for the role of a cult leader. Motherfucker has ‘Jones’ right in his goddamn name! I’ve seen footage of Jim Jones speaking, yet I could never see what people saw in him. After seeing Father sweet talk his followers into mandatory curfews and hard labor, I get it. I don’t have the necessary vocabulary to describe it to you dear reader (and if you happen to have the words that I don’t, you’re either in a cult already, or should probably put down the Scrabble dictionary, douchbag), but I finally understood how a simple preacher could manipulate a group of people into giving all their shit to him and leave the country.
The story, while centered around the events of Jonestown, had enough variation that I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to which character at what time. How are the people going to be tormented? Who will die and how? They say that if you know the outcome of a movie, most people tend to enjoy it more. I never truly saw how that could be before this movie. The fact was that anything could happen between what was familiar and what wasn’t that I couldn’t stop wondering how each event would connect to the others. Often it was BECAUSE I knew something horrible was about to happen that heightened the tension because I didn’t want any of the characters I’ve been connecting with to die!
But when you’re movie is based around The People’s Temple, death is eventual…and it’s not pretty.
For a film produced by Eli Roth, ‘The Sacrament’ is strangely restrained. I was expecting assholes to be ripped through trachea wounds before act one was over, yet I received a slow burning plot where the characters ponder whether they’re being deceived rather than wondering if the on screen claw hammer is going through their eye or their penis. By act three, shit goes down and the blood starts flowing, but it’s not as gratuitous as you might imagine, especially for a massacre. Each shot focuses on the horror, but doesn’t linger. You have as much time as the characters to react to what you’re seeing.
As for the found footage angle, it’s okay. The film does a decent job incorporating the format into the plot, but it never feels relevant. In fact, there are times when it seems impossible for a camera to be where it is. I found myself on several occasions thinking, “Wait, there are two cameras, one’s at point A, the other is at Point B, so where the hell did this one come from? Did someone find footage from an interdimensional Jesus that dropped his camera while researching what not to do with his teachings?” I praise a lot of what this film accomplished, but this use POV never felt like anything more than trying to keep the budget down.
This Halloween, you could do worse than sit down with ‘The Sacrament’. For everything I rambled on about for six paragraphs, this film should not have worked, yet it’s a well made pseudo-historical retelling of one of history’s darker moments. Try to get past the bullshit camera work and you’ll find enough thrills to keep you entertained for ninety minutes. Not everything will get to you, but I guarantee something will pull an uncomfortable chord inside you. For me, it was a scene that didn’t linger on a gore filled moment or some asshole in a mask that jumped out as someone hit the volume control while reaching for their coffee; rather it was a scene this involved a hypodermic needle and the phrase “What was that?!?” yelled over and over for an uncomfortable amount of time.
Go on, check it out. I’ll wait here.