Ti West’s latest goes into the heart of a cult during its final days, but MarvMarsh doesn’t drink the Kool-aid.
Ti West and Eli Roth are big names in horror. Not, obviously, literally big names – they don’t muster enough letters between them to make one Benedict Cumberbatch, for example – but names that are instantly recognisable to modern horror fans. That being so, the Eli Roth-produced and Ti West everything-elsed The Sacrament arrives trailing clouds of hip young horror glory.
In keeping with these credentials, The Sacrament uses a neat framing device. It purports to be a documentary put together from footage taken by a photographer and two Vice journalists during their visit to Eden Parish, the compound of a religious cult, a visit they make because the photographer’s sister is an enthusiastic cult member who writes to her brother to say it would be lovely if he popped in to see her at the compound’s unspecified location somewhere outside the United States. They are at this new location after recently upping sticks from Mississippi for reasons unknown, although it may well be a tax thing (Gary Barlow take note). The Jonestown echoes are apparent, though not to our brave trio, who have either never heard of it or else don’t think it likely that two cults would end in mass murder.
Concerned that his sister has joined a cult and disappeared into the middle of nowhere, Pat the photographer does the only sensible thing and takes two Vice journalists along with him. Because, if your sister asks you to visit her at her cult compound based at a secret location, then you should never think of going without two hip young journalists as back up, in case things take a turn.
Ok, so the frame is a bit wobbly but the idea is still a neat one. If you are familiar with the Vice Guides to Travel then you will recognise the loose, involved style being aped and if you aren’t then the film is kind enough to explain it all for you in an opening caption. What it gives us is eyes in the camp in its final days; empirical evidence from people caught up in events. The opening caption informs us that the style of journalism is called ‘immersionism’ and then drives home the point by having the word immersionism remain on screen as the rest of the caption fades, and then slide slowly across to the right. If anything says, ‘remember this’ then the old stay and slide does. Immersionism, you say to yourself. Immersionism. You may even nod seriously.
I always enjoy a nice rhetorical framing strategy so The Sacrament, or as it might as well be called, The Vice Guide to Jonestown (just as things go tits up), had me on board nice and early. I also appreciate a film that doesn’t mess about getting to what matters and the speed with which we are swept right up to the doors of the compound is creditable. Instead of wasting everybody’s time with a half hour of the brother umming and ahhing about going, and being persuaded to allow the Vice journalists along with him, we are told by one of the Vice guys and a helpful caption that all of that definitely happened. To further save time, the trip to the unknown location takes place as the opening titles pootle by. It’s lovely. More films should get on with it, even if the haste here does mean quite important questions, such as, “is this really a good idea?” are left unanswered.
So, a mysterious cult; a tricksy way to follow the story that isn’t rhetorical flashiness simply for its own sake; a speedy and efficient preamble; horror’s coolest young director at the wheel. All is set fair. Unfortunately, it is when Vice (magazine) enters Eden (Parish) that, appropriately one might think, the problems begin.
After some back and forth with a couple of armed guards who are quite rightly dubious about letting Vice journalists anywhere near anything whatsoever, our men and their cameras are allowed into the compound. And for twenty minutes, all is blissful. People from all over have thrown their lot in with “Father” and seem happier for it. There are even, bizarrely and entirely comically, some young black men from “the hood” who have followed this old white man to the middle of who knows where because, well, the reason isn’t given. They simply tell us that to them it is us, the viewers, who are the crazy ones. Well, no, come on, what’s going on here? Let’s hear it. This is the major fault that the film never overcomes: why are these people here? While the setup allows us to see subtle signs that all is not well, that the interactions in the camp betray the reality underneath; nothing of that nature is more than feebly gestured at. The perspective is entirely wasted. Instead of creating a believably unsettling atmosphere from which the later horror can plausibly emerge, characters are thrown in front of the camera, where they tell us why they are there, that Father is a great man, that they would do anything for the community. One person states that they will die before they go back. Ok, why? Show us. The value of the camera behaving as a witness is wasted. Now the speed of the exposition comes back as symptomatic of a lack of detailed interest.
Father, of course, is the cult leader. In place of Jim Jones, we are offered Charles Anderson Reed, who round about camp goes by his more pleasingly cultish nickname. Our first sight of this supposedly hugely charismatic, dangerous, charming man whom people have given everything to, including their freedom, comes when Father sits down to answer a few questions from one of our brave Vice boys, in front of his appreciative audience. Now, I would not presume to tell others whom they should allow to brainwash them, and far be it from me to suggest that I alone know a cult leader when I see one, but it seems to me that if you end up brainwashed by a man who looks like Buford T. Justice and carries about as much swaggering authority as the Pepperami Man then perhaps it is best if the doors of the compound stay locked and the less said the better. Once again we are told but we are not shown. The charisma-free old plank drawls on behind his sunglasses (worn at night, which does indicate both a mighty ego and some profound mental instability) over a ten minute set-piece that, one presumes, is intended to convey the awesome power and unsettling control that Father exerts. Instead, it made me want to watch Smokey and the Bandit again.
If you have seen previous Ti West films you might well be surprised to find the atmosphere here so implausible. He has shown previously, in films like House of the Devil, how adept he can be at brewing something up nicely. That he fails to do so this time is strange and it fatally undermines the entire enterprise. Even if most horror films fall to pieces in the final act, the build up is usually good fun. But here, the final act arrives to find everything already in a mess. Part of the chaos is caused by what seems to be a generic confusion. The plot is driven at several points by the sudden appearance of a mute girl in a scruffy dress with her hair hanging over her face, just standing there. She seems to have wandered in from the J-horror being filmed next door and there is an unintentionally comic effect to her appearance, as there is to several of the gorier scenes as the film rushes towards its finish. The problem is, if you fail to set all the dominoes up properly, then when you set them off the effect is bound to be disappointing. The film lacks any sense of fear. It is not remotely frightening.
There are some interesting ideas that float gently by but don’t get any foothold. The three visitors aren’t simply observers; their arrival is the trigger for what happens next, which suggests a sort of quantum theory of cults, but nothing much is done with the question of what effect an observer has on the thing observed. That is par for the course, unfortunately. The entire thing is frittered away and it is a pity, because I still think the idea was sound. If I could ask Ti West to take it back and have another run at it, I would.
The Sacrament is out this weekend.