Horror or Horrible: A Review of The Sacrament

by Katherine Hill

“The characters and incidents portrayed and the names herein are fictitious, and any similarity of the name, character, or history of any person is entirely coincidental and unintentional.”
– disclaimer at the end of
The Sacrament

the sacramentThe Sacrament is a low-budget film written, directed, and edited by Ti West. Nowhere in the opening or closing credits is it mentioned that the story is based on the Jonestown tragedy. West does, however, openly acknowledge this in interviews. He apparently knows a great deal about the real Jonestown, and film viewers knowledgeable about the real events will recognize many nods to Temple history.

The film focuses on three journalists for VICE Magazine who travel to a fictional religious commune called Eden Parish. Although the group started in the U.S., it has relocated to some undisclosed part of the world to get away from all of the problems of the U.S. The film opens with Patrick Carter (Kentucker Audley) leaving with fellow journalists Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) to visit Patrick’s sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz), who lives in the commune. Within a few hours of their arrival, the men discover that all is not as it appears. Tensions grow and trouble ensues; few people make it out alive. The footage itself is mostly shot with hand-held cameras, borrowing the “immersionism” approach that VICE uses; it’s intended to make the viewer feel like he/she is right there.

I really don’t like the film, but I’ve spent an untold amount of time and effort trying to articulate why. I’ve limited my comments to my major objections to the film, but there were plenty of other nits to pick. In short, anyone who considers viewing The Sacrament can consider themselves forewarned.

 

  1. The use of Jonestown as the basis of a horror/thriller film seems grotesque and inappropriate.

Ti West has stated in numerous interviews that he wanted to make a non-supernatural horror movie because he often finds real life events more horrifying than ghosts, zombies, or other supernatural entities. The horror of the real life events stays with you when you leave the theater, and he wanted to make the viewers keep thinking long after the film ended. I have to admit that the film made me think, but probably not the thoughts that Mr. West intended as the take-away: Since the moment the lights went up, I’ve been thinking, “What the hell was that?”

I find it even more disturbing that West thinks that he treated the subject with sensitivity. If he were serious about that claim – even if his sensitivity was limited to the survivors of Peoples Temple – you would think he would have talked to someone who had first-hand knowledge of
Jonestown’s history. After all, there are some around. For whatever reason, he didn’t make that effort, and I seriously doubt that Temple survivors or researchers will see this film as sensitive.

 

  1. The film doesn’t work as a horror/thriller piece if you know anything about Jonestown.

It’s a mistake to say that the film was “inspired” by Jonestown because it pretty much is Jonestown, just on a much smaller scale (fewer than 200 people; maybe his budget didn’t cover 700 more extras) and with some names changed. Perhaps the biggest change is that the religious group is more overtly Christian, with “Father” (Gene Jones) praising God occasionally and signing off from his loudspeaker announcements with “God Bless.” There’s even a crucifix in one of the gardens, and there’s a cross right next to Father’s throne in the pavilion. But if you know the JT story, you can predict almost everything that happens in this movie, which virtually kills the suspense that viewers typically expect in horror/thriller films. Maybe the “horror” was witnessing Father blow his brains out right on screen, or watching a mother slit her daughter’s throat, or seeing people foam at the mouth from drinking the poisoned punch. Or maybe it’s “horror” because the film seems to end abruptly; there’s no message, nothing to learn. Perhaps you shouldn’t expect a message in a horror movie. All you expect is that someone from the group of “protagonists” manages to escape the horrific scenario. They do, right in the nick of time.

I don’t think this is a matter of trying to find the right genre/label for the movie: if you told me The Sacrament is a drama, not a horror/thriller piece, I would still have to object. There’s virtually no character development so you could never call it a drama, and the script includes only a few hollow statements about why the Parish must die. I’ve always imagined that the tension was palpable during the last two days in Jonestown, but this film gave me no real sense of urgency about the crisis – people wanting to defect – on the last day of Eden Parish. With most of the context stripped away, it seemed particularly difficult to understand why the events warranted self-destruction of the community.

 

  1. The “immersionism” approach is trite and contrived.

The approach seemed both original and effective in The Blair Witch Project (a true horror/thriller film) all of those years ago. In this film, though, it just seems ridiculous. Perhaps the twist with this film is that there are two cameras in play, not one. Jake’s camera captures the airstrip shooting and – later – the aftermath of the deaths. Patrick’s camera remains at the commune, and, at Father’s urging, is used by Caroline to film the proceedings because “it’s important.” Essentially this is the video equivalent of Q042. But the film is obviously edited, not a continuous shot. It’s also impossible that a single person could have filmed the scene from one camera because there are edits – images of people in the pavilion, close-up shots of the vat, etc. – spliced together as Father speaks to the group in a shortened, paraphrased version of Jones’ final speech. It gets worse, though: Caroline carries the camera with her to the office, where her brother Patrick is handcuffed in a chair. She places the camera down on a table which – miraculously – gives a perfectly framed view of her injecting her brother with poison. After she’s killed him, she leaves, taking the camera with her. The camera is next seen on a table, sitting next to Father in his cabin, where reporter Sam is being held (also handcuffed in a chair). At this point, the third journalist (Jake) arrives at Father’s cabin, looking for Sam, and still carrying his own camera. There is a dialogue between Father and the two journalists that is theoretically captured between the two cameras, and all of the shots are perfectly framed – despite the fact that no one is actually attempting to aim the cameras and frame the images. The suspension of disbelief required to accept that the cameras would actually capture those shots makes the whole immersionism premise seem absurd.

The final image on the screen is an aerial view of the commune, showing us that Paradise has perished, before the camera is shut off. By then, the rawness of “found video” is a long-abandoned device, despite representations to the contrary. The final product includes more editing from the two cameras than the genre purports to allow. There are also other “finishing touches” that suggest this isn’t raw footage; for instance, there are times (“1:50 p.m. Local Time”) and titles (“The Parish Members”, “The Interview”) that appear on screen. There’s ominous, suspenseful background music, not usually considered a standard feature on most news cameras.

This raises a question for me: if this is the final product, then why don’t we see the two surviving journalists back in the studio in the aftermath of the Eden Parish massacre, offering some words of tribute or mourning regarding their fallen friend, or somehow trying to give some perspective to the events in the aftermath? It would have brought the film full circle, back to the journalists in a studio setting before they head out to find Caroline. The abrupt end for the film means that Ti West doesn’t have to place the tragedy in a larger perspective, and nothing is said to try to give a better understanding of why it happened.

In other words, “What the hell was that?”

(Katherine Hill is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver and is a regular contributor to this website. Her complete collection of articles is here. She may be reached at hilltass@gmail.com.)

Originally posted on October 10th, 2014.

Last modified on July 24th, 2018.
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