Ti West has long been celebrated as a "throwback" horror director, but his latest film may put a stop to that. Many note that his first movies, like "House of the Devil" and "The Innkeepers," hearken back to the good old days, to the era where Polanski made "Rosemary's Baby," to the times when horror films didn't need to be scare-a-minute pseudo-blockbusters.
"The Sacrament," though -- West's latest picture -- is a member of the much-maligned "found footage" genre. In this case, it's not a lost camcorder that the film is presenting footage from; rather, it's set up as a VICE documentary, complete with the TV show's slick formatting. It's not a parody, either, but rather a horror film that just happens to feature upstanding VICE writers as protagonists, ones so full of journalistic integrity that they'll follow a story to their own deaths. This may be the first pre-branded horror film.
It's historical, too: This is West riffing on the infamous Jonestown suicides. Three VICE journalists (AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, and Kentucker Audley) travel outside their American comfort zone to find an off-the-grid utopian commune, which one of their sisters (Amy Seimetz) has run off to. Soon enough, they meet "Father," (Gene Jones) the cult's leader. Because they're VICE journalists, they request an interview with him, and because this is a horror movie, that decision leads to harrowing death and destruction. For the most part, the picture follows the Jonestown events to a minute degree. In fact, the primary difference between the cult seen here ("Eden Parish") and the Jonestown cult is that, because this is a cheap independent movie, there are a fair few hundred less people at the fictional former than there were at the real-life latter.
The whole Jonestown angle isn't employed for political reasons, though. Little comments are made about imperialism and the destruction of utopian visions by commerce, but that's not what West is interested in. At the end of the day (and the film), the Jonestown connection just affords the director another haunted house to send his main character shrieking through. Once "Father" kicks off a rush of mass suicides, Swanberg -- fleeing the cult keeping him captive -- runs in horror through stacks of dead bodies, gunfights, and immolations. He screams his head off the whole way through, from horror to horror, like he's Shelley Duvall at the end of "The Shining." After all the build and historical allusions, the rote horror-movie payoffs render themselves quite limp. West's movie goes all the way around the block, to a cult that's ostensibly located on the other side of the globe, just so it can get to the haunted house next door.
That's not to say that West is obligated to make some kind of political comment on Jonestown, but doesn't he want to say something about it? His use of that particular piece of history isn't exploitive, but it's never inspired, either. It's as if he read the Wikipedia page for "Jonestown massacre," thought, "Yeah, that would make a good movie," and then never bothered to fill his ideas out beyond the broad strokes. Worse yet, this movie's already been made before, in Kevin Smith's "Red State," featuring Michael Parks as another charismatic cult leader giving massive monologues and influencing constant death. Gene Jones, however, is no Michael Parks. And -- with all due respect to Ti West -- when Kevin Smith beats you to the punch, and makes a better movie in the process, then it's time to go back to the horror-movie drawing board.