The Sacrament – by Alexandra Ferguson

Worldview Entertainment and Arcade Pictures
Country: USA
Year: 2013
Certificate: 15
Director: Ti West
Cast: Gene Jones – Father, AJ Bowen – Sam, Joe Swanberg – Jake, Amy Seimetz – Caroline, Kentucker Audley – Patrick

One of my favourite things about the start of a new year is the reflection period for the previous year. This means copious amounts of Top Ten lists and a chance to catch up on a few recommended films, music, books which have been missed along the way.

I was particularly interested in Fangoria’s lists of Top Ten Horror Movies from various contributors. There were a few titles which popped up again and again, one of them being Ti West’s The Sacrament.

Bowen and Audley in Ti West's The Sacrament
Bowen and Audley in Ti West’s The Sacrament

The story follows a group of website journalists who are intrigued by a letter sent from a team member’s sister inviting him to visit her where she has started a new life in a secluded community. She has reformed her drug

habit is convinced she has started a new life away from the evils of society. And so the group travel to Africa and arrive at Eden Parish, a community under the strict rule of a figure they call ‘Father’ (Jones). After conducting a rare interview with Father, Sam (Bowen) soon realises the members of the community are not dedicated to him by choice, and chaos suddenly descends as it is ruled that they should all take their lives before their lives are taken from them.

Jones as Father in The Sacrament

There are three alarm bells that may ring when describing West’s film:

  1. The film is ‘inspired by a true story’ which in this case is the true events of the mass cult suicide in Jonestown, USA in 1978.
  2. It’s a found footage film.
  3. Eli Roth is credited as a Producer.

However, don’t let any of this put you off.

I have a great amount of respect for Ti West as a horror writer and director. House of the Devil (2009) was a wonderful 1980s horror-inspired gem, and though not perfect, West is without doubt one of the most interesting talents working in the horror genre today and continues to mature with each feature.

The Sacrament is no exception.

It’s an interesting concept to update the story by relating it to a popular website like Vice, and the found footage decision works extremely well throughout, with the odd jarring moment like ALL found footage horror movies. It’s a slow introduction like a lot of West’s work, so don’t expect big bangs from the start. What you get in return is a horrible build-up to a grand finale which is nasty, uncomfortable and devastating.

AJ Bowen as Sam in The Sacrament
AJ Bowen as Sam in The Sacrament

AJ Bowen is commendable in the lead role as Sam, and begins the film with questionable morals, only to be thrown into the centre of confrontation in the film’s second act. You might recognise Bowen from both House of the Devil and You’re Next (2011), alongside Joe Swanberg.

The casting and acting choices in West’s film are also interesting compared to other modern horror movies. Gene Jones’ casting as Father is low-key. He comes across as an ordinary, weak man which makes it even more disturbing to think he has gathered so many followers and commands such astonishing power. The characters in The Sacrament are not intended to be quotable horror fantasies, but instead are snippets of people over a short period of time in the midst of atrocity. The scene between Kentucker Audley and Amy Seimetz as brother and sister towards the end of the film is particularly heart-breaking.

There is a clever balance between maintaining a horror genre feel to the film, but not falling into the expected tropes. Some might argue this is more thriller than horror, but the overall atmosphere constructed horror moments keep it within the genre for me.

Audley and Seimetz in The Sacrament
Audley and Seimetz’s final embrace in The Sacrament

Once again, it’s not a perfect movie, but is a great horror film and I really believe West is working towards something unbelievably special in the future. His next film, In a Valley of Violence, scheduled for this year is a revenge western starring Karen Gillan, Ethan Hawke and John Travolta… I can’t wait to see how it turns out!