Sunday, October 26, 2014

30 Days of Nightmares #26: THE SACRAMENT (2013)

The Story: A TV journalist who specializes in exposing hoaxes follows a young man to an isolated community, where several hundred people live under the cultish influence of a man who calls himself "Father."

Expectations: Ti West (probably my favorite young horror filmmaker) + Joe Swanberg + A.J. Bowen + Eli Roth (producer) = Win. 

Reaction: The first half of this film works for exactly the same reason that Ti West's HOUSE OF THE DEVIL works.  Most horror movies are a rollercoaster ride, with peaks and valleys.  HOUSE OF THE DEVIL was one long climb up a very steep peak (and in the end the filmmaker sort of leaves us dangling there on the precipice).  It shouldn't work.  Generations of horror critics and filmmakers have said, fairly, that an audience needs occasional relief and release.  Without false scares and comic relief, they'll start laughing at things that aren't supposed to be funny -- because they just can't handle the buildup anymore.  West's subsequent film THE INNKEEPERS illustrates this philosophy perfectly.  Now maybe I'm misremembering, but I don't recall much relief in HOUSE OF THE DEVIL... and the same is true of the first half of THE SACRAMENT.

The reason it works, I think, is because the characters aren't the ones in suspense.  We, the audience, are the ones in suspense.  We know, because we're watching a "horror movie," that bad things are going to happen.  Because we've seen horror movies before, the setup gives us more or less an idea of what bad things might happen, and how.  West's brilliance is that he makes us constantly second-guess our speculations and assumptions.  In the case of THE SACRAMENT, that means building a story around central characters who are cynical but don't necessarily want to be cynical, and surrounding them with people who could be manipulative and monstrous -- or could just have a different way of viewing the world.  Naturally, every viewer will bring to this movie their own preconceptions about religious cults... I think most of us will respond like the central characters: mostly cynical but ever-so-slightly hopeful that a community founded entirely on peace and love could actually exist.  But, again... this is a "horror movie."  So I was expecting THE WICKER MAN.

(WARNING: THESE LAST TWO PARAGRAPHS INCLUDE SPOILERS) For a while, I actually thought that West was building toward something genuinely radical -- maybe a scenario where the cult members and their vaguely creepy leader turned out to be the "good guys," and the journalist turned out -- somehow, unknowingly -- to be the "monster."  Ultimately, that's how "Father" sees things... but not how we, the audience, see them.  The second half of the film is a pretty straightforward and obvious fictionalization of the Jonestown Massacre.  At this point, it's impossible to have any sympathy for "Father," and the narrative has only one obvious route to follow.  Yes, it's horrifying -- but not cathartic.

Because of such strong similarities the Jonestown, the finale seems almost trivial.  The interesting story here is how ordinary people could be so thoroughly duped by a madman -- and that's what the first half of THE SACRAMENT is about.  Once all the followers drink the Kool-Aid, the story of the stranger-in-a-strange-land who sees through the haze seems superfluous.  At this point, the character exists only to justify the found footage narrative device.  (He has to get away, or this pseudo-documentary would never exist...)  For me, that kind of closure cheapens everything that has come before it... which is a shame, because this is otherwise brilliant filmmaking.   

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: Gene Jones gives a remarkable performance as "Father."  The scene where he delivers one final sermon and sacrament to his flock is genuinely chilling.

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