**** (out of 5)
June 6, 2014
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
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For years, I have been bemoaning the use of found footage by horror filmmakers (and those who step out of that genre with the technique, like the makers of movies like “Project X” and “Best Night Ever”). For the most part, I find the found footage style to be derivative, imitative and generally void of creativity, logic and reality.
That’s not to say there aren’t good found footage movies out there. Ignoring some of the foibles of the style, I have enjoyed “The Blair Witch Project,” “Cloverfield” and a couple of the “Paranormal Activity” films. However, a lot of this was because these were pioneers in a very narrow field that has been almost done to death, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Cinematically, 2014 has been a return to found footage with awful movies like “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” and “Devil’s Due.” However, there is a small light in the exploded minefield of found footage, and that is Ti West and his new film “The Sacrament.”
There are several key reasons why West makes the approach work for “The Sacrament.” First, while he’s dipped his toe in the genre with his contributions to “V/H/S,” and the video look of his “The ABCs of Death” segment “M Is for Miscarriage” has a certain found footage feel to it, West does not rely on the format at all. In fact, West finds new ways of making horror films – from the retro look of “The House of the Devil” to the modern, somber slow burn of “The Inkeepers.”
In other words, West has made “The Sacrament” a found footage movie because it was the best way that he could tell the story. A lesser director makes the decision for gimmicky reasons or because this is the new wave of filmmaking to connect with the iPod generation. West does it for better reasons, and thus he makes sure the format works.
“The Sacrament” follows an independent guerilla news team that is investigating a cult to which the sister of one of their reporters belong. They get special permission to travel out of the country to visit the cult location and make sure she is in good hands. After making the travels, they uncover a commune that seems relatively peaceful on the surface but has a dark side underneath. As the news team digs deeper and asks more questions, it quickly becomes apparent that everyone there is in great danger.
One of the concerns I had when I saw the trailers was that this movie would be an aggressively anti-religious film. It’s not that I’m a Bible thumper, but I know plenty of good people associated with churches, and I have a pretty strong “live and let live” personal philosophy. To me, an obnoxious atheist is as annoying as an obnoxious zealot trying to convert me. Can’t we all just get along?
However, “The Sacrament” does not set out to be anti-religious. It sets out to be anti-cult, and it shares the spotlight with some other excellent recent films that shine a light on modern cults, including “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “The Sound of My Voice.”
While I’m being a bit cagey about what actually happens in the film, for fear of dropping spoilers, it’s worth noting that this story is a fairly close retelling of a tragic cult situation that has happened before. If you know your history, this will become very apparent when the plot starts to unfold. That’s where West finds his horror: in truth and history.
Unlike most found footage movies that offer little or no explanation why the people are constantly filming or why there’s a need to capture everything they can on camera, the set-up of “The Sacrament” gives us the reasons, and with the characters being video professionals, the film does not trade suspense for annoying shakycam.
“The Sacrament” is a chilling film that looks at the darkest side of human nature and what is truly capable in the hands of evil people. It’s not always easy to watch, but it’s definitely worth seeing.