MOVIE: **** (out of 5)
BLU-RAY EXPERIENCE: *** (out of 5)
Joe Swanberg as JAKE
Amy Seimetz as CAROLINE
Kate Lyn Sheil as SARAH
AJ Bowen as SAM
Gene Jones as FATHER
Kentucker Audley as PATRICK
Studio: Magnet Releasing
Directed by: Ti West
BY KEVIN CARR
Back in 1999 when “The Blair Witch Project” came out, I praised its creative use of the not-yet-coined found-footage genre. Sure, I had to leave the theater for fear of puking my popcorn over the seats in front of me, but I thought the innovative use of video and film in a fake documentary style was groundbreaking.
Similarly, in 2008 when “Cloverfield” was released – and the following year when the first “Paranormal Activity” hit movie screens – I thought there were some cool things being done with the genre.
However, now most found footage movies are tired and collapse under the weight of their own stretched-too-thin premise. In general, I cannot stand found footage movies because the shooting style is used as a crutch to help deflect attention from underdeveloped characters, terrible dialogue, generally poor writing, and a lack of fresh ideas.
But that doesn’t mean that all found footage is bad. In the hands of a talented director like Ti West, found footage can still be mighty compelling. This is mainly because, unlike his contemporaries from Radio Silence, West doesn’t limit himself strictly to this style. He’s got a real knack for making deliberately-paced films with a strong emphasis on atmosphere, mood and restrained cinematography. It’s almost hard to believe that the director responsible for “The House of the Devil” and “The Innkeepers” is doing found footage.
And that’s part of the reason “The Sacrament” works so well. West uses the found footage genre – and more specifically the fake documentary approach – as a way to frame a story rather than a way to hide bad writing and acting.
“The Sacrament” is a modernized, fictional account of a cult going to extremes in the tradition of Jonestown. The film follows a group of guerilla journalists who are investigating a cult established outside of the United States, of which one of the sisters of the journalists is part. They visit the cult looking for answers, and they are faced with armed guards and a creepy-yet-charismatic leader. The more they dig, the more they discover the peaceful veneer is hiding some horrifying truths.
“The Sacrament” is a chilling way to look at people operating in a dangerous game. The use of the documentary style allows the audience to see the events unfold in real-time with the journalists themselves. The story doesn’t require multiple points of view, there’s a purpose to having such high-quality cameras, and there’s an obvious reason why the participants would want to continue filming. They’re journalists, after all, and when they see things start to go sour, their goal is to document this information.
Those familiar with Jonestown will see plenty of things coming, but that doesn’t make the events any less chilling. Cults aren’t making news the way they were in the 1960s and 1970s, but they certainly still exist. Recent cult-inspired films like “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “The Sound of My Voice” are the movie industry’s way or reminding us that these things still exist. West uses this subconscious paranoia we have of losing control of our wills to play his horror-themed cards with “The Sacrament.”
It’s not a traditional horror movie, and that helps make it effective. Even in a year when found footage is trying to make a comeback (and failing with lackluster performances of films like “Devil’s Due” and “Earth to Echo” in mainstream theaters), “The Sacrament” is a solid reminder that the genre can still be manipulated well if you know what you’re doing.
A nice assortment of special features on the Blu-ray. There are four meaty behind-the-scenes documentaries: “Creating The Sacrament: Revealing the Vision,” “Working with the Director: The Ti West Experience,” “Preparing for Takeoff: Behind the Scenes Helicopter Sequence” and “AXS TV: A Look at The Sacrament.” West also joins stars AJ Bowen and Amy Seimetz on a commentary track.