Via Correspondence: The Sacrament (2013)
The Series: Isaac lives in New Brunswick. Jason lives in Toronto. Every so often, they watch a movie separately and then share their thoughts in a back-and-forth conversation here. It's the written equivalent of a movie discussion podcast.
The Movie: The Sacrament is a film directed by Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) about a documentary crew traveling to do a film on an isolated commune where people have returned to the land and rejected creature comforts of technology. It is paradise. One of the filmmakers, Patrick, has a sister who went there leading to the idea of documenting it. Naturally, not all seems on the up and up and references to Heaven's Gate and Jonestown are abundant.
Why this movie? I chose this movie because I'm a big fan of West's previous two films, The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers and I was curious how he'd tackle a feature length found footage film. The subject matter is ripe for plundering, too, as not enough works of fiction have dealt with cults - Martha Marcy May Marlene being one solid example.
Jason: If it weren't for you, Isaac, I don't think I'd be even a remote fan of horror films, so I do feel I owe it to you that I responded as well as I did to Ti West's previous films. I thought The House of the Devil rose above its homage-heavy visuals to 80s schlock cinema and presented a subtle, unsettling film. It was simple, straightforward and escalated pretty extensively by the end. The Innkeepers was likewise right up my alley - it was a ghost story that didn't try to do too much. The general set up involving ghost hunters looking after an old hotel is the perfect set up to mine scares and narrative. In fact, that might be West's greatest strength. He doesn't over-complicate his narratives. They are concise and to the point.
That's also what drew me to The Sacrament beyond his name recognition. Jonestown, which I feel this most resembles, was a complete horror show of its own. So, before I get to my thoughts on whether or not this succeeded in bringing that scenario to the screen, I want to know what your initial thoughts are.
Isaac: I also enjoyed House of the Devil and The Innkeepers. I do think both movies have structural issues, but on the whole they were solid genre efforts. The Sacrament, on the other hand, has more issues than I can count. It wasn't awful but it wasn't very good either.
You're right about the Jonestown massacre. The Sacrament resembles it to a fault. If you're familiar with the story of Jim Jones' cult, there are absolutely no surprises. I kept waiting for a twist, but it follows the well-worn story to the letter. Jonestown is a fascinating historical event and a great starting point for a horror movie, but you have to add things or change things or put some sort a spin on it for it to be interesting. It's such a well-known story that "Drinking the Kool-Aid" is an idiom just about everyone is familiar with. I kept thinking of the Safe Haven segment from the anthology V/H/S 2, which took all of the cliched cult tropes and spun them on their head, creating something surprising, fun, and scary. The Sacrament's worst offence, besides being predictable, was that it was dull.
I had a few other problems with it (and a few things I liked too) which I'll get to later, but first I want to know if we're on the same page here.
Jason: From what I can tell, I liked both of West's previous features more than you did. Any flaws or structural problems didn't wriggle their way into my consciousness enough for me to really care about them. On the other hand, I think I like The Sacrament even less than you. I would go so far and say it's pretty terrible.
Safe Haven is a really good comparison piece, as it does everything right with the mysterious cult narrative. I'm with you, this is too heavily cribbed from Jonestown right down to the father's aviator sunglasses. But what's worse is, like you said, how dull everything is. The characters have no life to them, and the people they meet are flat and uninteresting, too. Sure, that's part of the story - they gave up their individuality to become part of the whole - but it takes away any engagement in those scenes. The bit where they started playing some basketball was the closest to decent character development beyond the filmmakers.
Where the movie loses its footing the most is in its central conceit. Found footage is a tricky method to apply correctly. So many found footage movies lose credibility because of the ludicrous lengths the characters go to in order to continue filming. It's what derailed Cloverfield - and I don't just accept the "I have to keep filming, people need to know!" argument that often feels like a hand wave because the writers couldn't conceive of a better reason. I get it, found footage is inexpensive. But if it gets in the way of the storytelling, you should probably get rid of it.
And it definitely got in the way of things here. Maybe I'm more hyper aware of the cameras in a film like this, so I end up questioning the logic of the footage and how it was put together later. Everything is so obviously cut and put together from multiple cameras - some that are left behind - that I had a difficult time accepting it as a whole. Found footage films have a few excellent entries - namely REC - but the majority are clunky and lazy. The Sacrament fits both of those descriptors.
Isaac: I agree with all of your points. I didn't care about the characters or feel I knew who any of them were as people. At least in a bad slasher movie you know that this one's the jock, this one's the nerd, etc. But, here, the Vice reporters were interchangeable and so were most of the cultists.
And that reminds me: it's kind of a nit-pick, but I didn't like that whole Vice thing. It would have worked better if the characters were from a fictional, Vice-esque publication. It felt like product placement more than anything. Or a cheap way to make it feel more real, but it just ended up being distracting.
That's kind of how I see the found footage gimmick in general, a cheap way to make a movie feel more real. Like you said, there are good found footage films, but even the good ones run into problems because the format can't help but get in the way of cohesive storytelling. And it's true, the whole hand-wavy explanation of "the world needs to know" is so lazy and cliche at this point. It's pretty much a prerequisite that the character filming says that line at some point in every single found footage movie.
The advantage of found footage is verisimilitude, which can lead to some astounding moments, but it's not worth it for all the inherent problems. Most found footage movies would feel just as real if they were shot like a normal movie, and you wouldn't run into all these narrative issues. Audiences have the ability to suspend their disbelief but found footage movies don't trust us to use it.
And then there's the most common complaint, the cameraman/woman is always running for his or her life and all that shaky camerawork not only looks awful, it's hard to watch without getting dizzy.
Really, the only reason I wouldn't call it terrible is because it at least has a couple of redeeming qualities and, being a huge horror fan, I'm often subjected to movies that are terrible with a capital T. So the movies I consider terrible probably lurk a bit deeper in the gutter than most people ever have reason to venture.
Even though most of the acting is so bad and phony that all the found footage trickery in the world couldn't keep it from coming off like a bad amateur play (especially the lead reporter and the photographer's sister, they recited their lines like they were reading them off of teleprompters) I thought that Gene Jones was excellent as the cult leader, Father. He was the most authentic thing about the film and he was spooky as hell. The interview scene had some great moments, and was when I thought the movie might start getting good.
Jason: Jones as Father was easily the best part, I'm with you. And while you say you normally see capital T terrible horror movies, I kind of wish it went far enough in that direction. I wanted either more camp or more artfulness. What we got was something so bland that it had no flavour at all. This is strange because regardless of their shortcomings, both The Innkeepers and The House of the Devil were chock full of style. This, outside of a couple scenes - maybe only the interview - was incredibly milquetoast.
The inclusion of Vice is tricky, too. In its quest for authenticity it becomes anything but. It's hokey and unnecessary. I am willing to give Ti West a bit of a pass because of how much I loved his previous two films. This is less an indictment of his skills as a filmmaker and more of the unfortunate trappings of found footage. The problem is when a movie drops its central gimmick at some interval - like when District 9 abandoned its faux-documentary - the film feels even sloppier. I'm all for taking risks but they need to make sense and avoid obstructing the overall narrative. You don't want your audience asking too many questions about utility, and I found I was constantly taken out of this movie because of its stupid gimmick.
The one concern I have about West as a filmmaker is whether or not he has his own distinct voice or if he's good at aping other styles. The House of the Devil is an 80s horror movie made in the 00s. Right down to aesthetic choices, it lives in the 80s. The Innkeepers is maybe a little fresher, but it's a haunted house movie that plays - very well - on old tropes because they're effective. The Sacrament feels like it could have been made by anyone. There is no artistic stamp to it; nothing fresh breathed into the style like he did previously. It's a bad film that's worse because there is nothing new or interesting about it or how it was made.
Isaac: One other critique I have for The Sacrament is that when it finally gets going and the shit hits the fan, it all happens so fast, there's no time to be thrilled or engaged. It feels rushed and sloppy. Why not spend more time on the interesting and suspenseful aspect of your film instead of brushing over it in favour of a drawn out set up that takes forever to get going?
I definitely don't see this as a reason to write off Ti West completely, but I do agree that I'm increasingly unsure of what makes a Ti West movie a Ti West movie. Not that filmmakers should limit themselves to a specific style, but it's hard to see what he adds to the genre. That seems to be a problem with a lot of today's celebrated horror filmmakers. Sometimes It feels like they're just making mix-tapes of the horror classics they grew up on. As an admirer of Quentin Tarantino's work, I think his influence is partially responsible for this trend. Tarantino's films are like a collage of other films and tropes, but lathered on top of all that is Tarantino's singular style and vision, which makes his movies so unique even when compared to the films he was inspired by. But, far too often I see celebrated genre films that seem to be content following in the footsteps of what came before without ever venturing anywhere interesting. West is still a relatively new filmmaker, though, and House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are two of the better entries in the recent batch of arty auteur horror films. Hopefully his best work is ahead of him.
Next up, we're watching Isaac's pick, Tim Burton's latest, Big Eyes. Won't you join us?