“Thirty-three years on from Cannibal Holocaust and fourteen from The Blair Witch Project, found-footage horror is still going strong,” wrote Oliver Lyttelton in a dispatch from Venice to the Playlist a little over a week ago now. Ti West has “marked himself as one of the more promising young directors [horror has] to offer with the one-two punch of The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, which stood out by going against the prevailing winds and nodding to classic ’70s horror rather than more contemporary influencers. Having dipped his toe in found footage waters with a segment of the original V/H/S, West dives under completely for his fifth feature The Sacrament… It has its fair share of problems, but credit the flick with bringing a relatively fresh angle to the genre.”
“Presented as a Vice-funded bit of immersion journalism, it sends the usual SXSW suspects (AJ Bowen, Kentucker Audley, and Joe Swanberg) to a remote religious commune, where one of the boys’ sisters (Amy Seimetz, because who else?) has holed up,” explains A.A. Dowd at the AV Club. “West has a knack for slow builds, and the early scenes possess a certain nagging creepiness. But the mock-doc structure is totally inconsistent; if this is supposed to be an official ready-to-air segment, with an intro and title cards, why does it also appear to be unedited raw footage of the trip? More problematic is the way West essentially re-creates a real-life atrocity, beat for awful beat, for the sake of some second-rate thrills. One should never expect tastefulness in a film produced by Eli Roth.”
“The film is by far at its best in its unsettling opening stages, where the commune is shown to be beatifically content, and the Vice boys’ cocky bravado is gradually subsumed by a creeping unease, accentuated by Tyler Bates’s creepy score,” writes Ashley Clarke at the House Next Door. But then the “narrative settles into a depressingly conventional groove, jettisoning its initial social critique and any discernible characterization in favor of wobbly cam sprints through the woods, overly violent and sloppily choreographed carnage, and timeworn religious-cult clichés.”
“The ominous, pulsating drone of Bates’s music, the increasing agitation of West’s editing, and the raw, video-reporter edge of Eric Robbins’s nervy camera work all contribute to manipulating the atmosphere into one of engulfing dread in a film that gets under the skin and stays there,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “Hard-liners may have issues with the decision not to stick too rigorously to the found-footage angle. But the Vice coverage is more a setup device than a binding framework, so a looser approach to it as chaos takes hold seems justifiable.”
The threat is embodied by “the mesmerizing, subtly off-kilter performance by Gene Jones as Father,” notes Guy Lodge in Variety. “An overweight, sallow-skinned Southerner with a confident, oleaginous delivery, he speaks like a leader more than he looks like one, but he’s not smooth enough to deflect a seemingly terrorized undercurrent that runs throughout the Parish. West could have teased out this suggestion of disquiet a little longer before heading full-tilt into its violent manifestation. Still, the fallout is staged with a vivid, panicked brutality that sustains the scare factor even as we lose the uncanniness, raising and simplifying the stakes to life-or-death levels.”
“The performances are strong across the board,” adds Ryland Aldrich at Twitch. “This has been a hallmark of West’s other films and it is no different here.” For CineVue‘s John Bleasdale, “it appears to be high time for a moratorium on found-footage films.” But Mike Pereira at Bloody Disgusting declares: “The Sacrament might very well be West’s finest work to date.”
The Sacrament screened in the Orizzonti section in Venice and in the Vanguard program in Toronto.
Update: “[S]loppily made and surpassingly tasteless,” finds Adam Nayman, writing in Cinema Scope. “If West and his collaborators… mean to use ‘Eden Parish’ and its scripture-quoting head honcho (the admittedly excellent Gene Jones) to caricature the self-wounding isolationism of the Tea Party, they don’t get much out of it; and if having Jones’ fascist ‘Father’ cite Malcolm X and Bobby Kennedy as his heroes is meant to be embedded lefty satire—a self-portrait seen in a funhouse mirror—one suspects the joke will be lost on the gore-hound audience.”
Update, 9/12: For Film.com‘s Jordan Hoffman, The Sacrament “isn’t just bad, it’s infuriating. It wastes the talents of a number of fine performers and squanders the good will West earned from his extremely entertaining horror-comedy The Innkeepers and stylish 80s tone poem The House of the Devil. Put bluntly, there’s just no excuse for this.”
Update, 9/17: “West’s film never explicitly acknowledges the parallels to Jonestown, but one can clearly grasp the similarities,” writes Jovana Jankovic at In Review Online. “The documentary and the narrative developments in The Sacrament mirror each other so closely that I was surprised by the lack of any ‘Based on…’ title cards. It’s mildly disappointing that West’s film doesn’t even bother to insert any slight variations from its very obvious source material; when the cult’s leader finally hits the screen in tinted, 1970s sunglasses that are exactly like the ones Jim Jones wore, the lack of originality in The Sacrament can’t help but feel like a letdown. Nevertheless, if it’s suspense, mystery and over-the-top violence you’re looking for, The Sacrament absolutely satisfies on all those fronts.”
Update, 12/6: “At first, The Sacrament is disappointing because it seems too normal,” writes Donal Harris for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “which I realize is a callous thing to say about a reenactment of the largest loss of US civilian life before 9/11. But that’s part of the vexed problem of expectations, both for a film genre and an individual director. This kind of film is supposed to end with a field full of dead bodies, but a Ti West film isn’t, and yet here they both are. Maybe now that West has stopped making horror flicks, he’s finally going to start mowing down his characters. It’s difficult to situate The Sacrament in West’s oeuvre for these reasons, though maybe not if it’s just a bid for a mainstream career.”
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