Thursday, 5 June 2014

Review: The Sacrament (2013)

Director Ti West developed a small cult following after his films The House of the Devil (2009) and The Inkeepers (2011) helped mark him as a leading figure of modern horror cinema. With his unique attention to detail, slow-burning scares and retro aesthetic, West’s outstanding efforts hit refresh on a genre that had grown repetitive and tiresome. It is surprising then, that the progressive director has stuck with the style of his VHS (2012) vignette and opted for the found-footage formula for his latest project. The Eli Roth produced “horror” feature The Sacrament (2013) is a psychological thriller set in a remote and seemingly peaceful commune.

Fashion photographer, Patrick (Kentucker Audley) calls on his friends at Vice media to help find his missing sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) whom he knows has been hanging out at Eden Parish, an off-the-radar commune that she has been living at since completing a drug rehabilitation programme. Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) agree to help, and intrigued by the idea of remote living they come armed with cameras, expecting to get a story out of the people who had made the decision to escape the rat-race. Upon arrival, the trio are met with violent animosity from armed gunmen, before being led into the self-sustained community by an over enthusiastic and very healthy looking Caroline. At the heart of the parish is a mysterious leader known only as “Father” (Gene Jones) whose voice booms over a tannoy system, instructing Parish members at all times of the day. As Patrick reunites with his sister, his two friends explore the community interviewing residents about their lives on and off the commune. At once, the filmmakers are struck by the harmonious ethos within the man-made paradise. However, cracks soon begin to appear as sinister notes are exchanged and one by one residents approach the newcomers begging them to help with their escape.

Although the film’s location, Eden Parish is a fictional creation, the parallels between the commune and that which lay host to the real-life Jonestown Massacre of 1973 seem more than coincidental. The emphasis of the film, however is on humanity, with the writing adding flesh to the bones of what one would formally regard as a statistic, thus bringing the viewer closer to the mentality of an individual with the chutzpah to walk away from a traditional society. West’s signature slow-burn is applied perfectly and we’re introduced to the mysterious leader initially through his loud booming voice alone, thus creating an intimidating God like figure. When the enigmatic Father, played with great menace by Jones, sits down for an interview with the filmmakers, the reaction of his followers is wild and exalting, yet when the camera meets his shaded eyes, his unexpected normality becomes strikingly unsettling.

The found footage formula has been milked to death of late thanks to an endless outpouring of Paranormal Activity (2007) spin-offs, yet here it is used to fully immerse the viewer, ensuring that the characters speak directly to the audience and, with the removal of the third wall, throws them straight into the lions den to create maximum discomfort. The Sacrament is the pure definition of a “cult-film” and whilst it may not appeal to its target market due to the avoidance of the sharp shocks and ghouls that have become synonymous with the genre, it does have the capacity to broaden the director’s fan-base. Here West’s approach borrows the tension from Kevin Smith’s tragically underrated Red State (2011) is more Apocalypse Now (1979) in its subtle and gentle incline towards “the horror”. When the horror itself begins, thanks to West’s use of the first person perspective and Tyler Bates’ haunting score, Eden Parish becomes wholly engulfing and an impossible place from which to escape.

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