To complain that horror movies get a bad rap these days is like noting that the sky has been especially blue lately. It is simply the way of things. For the past hundred years, horror films have existed in the fringes of the moviegoing consciousness. And not strictly without reason; the vast majority of horror movies released in any given period are pretty terrible by most conventional metrics (though the same could probably be said about most genres). The trick for the discerning horror fan is to separate the wheat from the chaff, to look past the blood and gore and find the true gems amidst the multitudes of reboots and j-horror remakes.
One of the best hidden marvels of the genre in recent years is THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, the 2009 breakthrough film by Ti West. While billing itself as a throwback to the glory days of ‘80s horror (bolstered by cheesy period touches and roles from cult faves Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov), it actually feels like something far more elegant and old-fashioned, introducing likable, well-crafted characters, then artfully delaying the inevitable mayhem until the tension is almost excruciating. West’s follow-up, 2011’s THE INNKEEPERS, is less beloved, despite being nearly as good for my money; while it once again envelops a pair of engaging characters in a mounting atmosphere of dread, critics seemed to shrug it off as “more of the same.”
“More of the same” is a charge that cannot be leveled against West’s new film, THE SACRAMENT, a found-footage thriller produced by fellow horror wunderkind Eli Roth (CABIN FEVER, the HOSTEL films). Both genre and collaborator seem like odd matches for West, whose methodical formalism seems in direct opposition to the inaesthetic trappings of faux-vérité and the shock-and-awe of Roth’s stock in trade. But while the context is a change of pace, West’s voice remains unmistakable.
In a canny spin on the CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST model, the film is framed as an extended VICE video segment, as a trio of correspondents (including HOUSE OF THE DEVIL’s A.J. Bowen) travel to a remote jungle compound, where photographer Patrick’s sister has fallen under the influence of a charismatic religious leader known only as Father (played by the perfectly named Gene Jones, best known as the gas station attendant in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN). Anyone with a passing familiarity with the People’s Temple should have a pretty good idea of where this is going; needless to say, the protagonists’ early morning helicopter flight becomes less than a sure thing.
When West announced that he was making a found footage feature, many fans worried that the intentional artlessness of the genre would hamstring the director’s aesthetic. Instead, West seems to have embraced its possibilities, skillfully dropping the camera to reframe the action (as seen in a dazzling jungle chase) and passing it between characters to shift perspective. The documentary style belies the fact that every camera movement is fully intentional; it is a testament to West’s craft that it never feels less than natural. As for the framing narrative, the use of a real outlet like VICE is mildly distracting (and likely to date the film as time goes by), but the onscreen graphics and titles set to The Knife do make the opening scenes seem authentically like something that might pop up on your Facebook feed (“When I Saw All These People Drinking Kool-Aid, It Made Me Laugh. What Happened Next Left Me Speechless”).
The other aspect of the film that raised eyebrows was the involvement of Roth, whose graphic, cynical style is a long way from West’s humane minimalism. In fact, the two voices merge fairly seamlessly. The set-up owes much to Roth’s playbook – entitled kids venture outside their comfort zone and get in way over their heads – and the carnage of the final act would not feel out place in HOSTEL or AFTERSHOCK. But West imbues the characters with his trademark banter and millennial ennui; Bowen mindlessly twiddling on his smartphone, despite being hundreds of miles from the nearest signal, deserves to be ranked among the defining images of our generation.
The acting rises to the material. Amy Seimetz is a stand-out as brainwashed sister Caroline, flitting anxiously between hospitable warmth for her biological and fearsome devotion to her newfound Father. Bowen and Joe Swanberg are fully believable in their transition from clickbait-hunting unctuousness to fear and compassion for the lost souls of Eden Parish (Kentucker Audley never quite gets a bead on photographer Patrick, but this might just be a result of the fact that he stays in a separate cabin and only intermittently enters the narrative). Unsurprisingly, the most striking presence is Father. As portrayed by Gene Jones (which, seriously, how awesome is it that he’s actually named that?), one can see how Father could hold sway over hundreds of converts; his drawl is unfailingly charming, but his slack jaw and ever-present aviator shades hint at his true nature. I was surprised to learn that Jones has few credits outside of this and NO COUNTRY; here’s hoping this film leads to a successful late-blooming career as a character actor.
The true star, however, is West’s defining trademark: that overwhelming atmosphere of dread. Just as HOUSE OF THE DEVIL builds its tension by letting us know early on exactly what kind of madness is in store, THE SACRAMENT banks on the fact that we know what’s going to fucking happen. Despite taking place today, and the fact that the names are changed, Eden Parish is basically Jonestown, and Father is basically Jim Jones. The horror doesn’t come from wondering what’s going to happen, but when it’s going to happen and how bad it’s going to be (spoiler: it’s pretty damn bad). The plot is so similar to the real-life Jonestown tragedy that it could come off as tasteless in the context of a horror movie; as it is, it feels more like the genre trappings are a Trojan horse for the horrors of real life.
Which brings us to a question: is THE SACRAMENT a horror movie? It looks like a horror movie, and it is most certainly horrifying (indeed, I’ll be surprised if I see a more harrowing film this year), but there’s nothing in the film that couldn’t happen in real life – or that hasn’t. Of course, the same question used to be raised about movies about serial killers (PSYCHO was rarely even mentioned in books about horror movies until the late ‘70s). West’s next film, IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE, promises to push those boundaries even further: it’s being described as a “revenge western” starring Ethan Hawke, Taissa Farmiga, Karen Gillan, and John Travolta (!). Whatever genre he falls in, Ti West is one of the most exciting voices in genre filmmaking today, and well deserving of a cul… er, a devoted following.
THE SACRAMENT (2013) Directed by Ti West
Plays through Thursday, 6/19
40 Brattle Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
Click here for tickets and showtimes.