Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Movie Review: The Sacrament

In recent years, Ti West has become one of the best directors in horror and his latest film, The Sacrament, further cements that point. A fictionalized retelling of the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, where 909 members of that church lost their lives in a mass suicide, The Sacrament follows a Vice Media news crew to the community of Eden Parish.

Since the release of The Blair Witch Project in 1999, the sub-genre of horror known as 'found footage' has been used repeatedly by a multitude of directors to varying degrees of success. For every victory like Blair Witch there's a disaster in the form of Romero's Diary of the Dead, it's a technique that allows films with modest budgets to really make an impact on the genre. That impact can vary however when a mediocre script or director tries to utilize 'found footage,' luckily Ti West is a master of slow-burn suspense and he lifts the maligned genre to great heights with The Sacrament.

A horror film, to be truly effective, needs a believable premise and the fact that Vice Media allowed the production to use their name was a smart move. The Vice integration allows the 'found footage' to actually make sense as The Sacrament is filmed more like a professional news report/documentary than anything else. There is some slick cinematography on display thanks to Eric Robbins who worked with West previously on The Roost, his first feature from 2005. The Sacrament looks like it was shot professionally, just like a news broadcast, another rarity for this horror sub-genre. 

Cast members from West's previous projects return as well, all giving stellar performances. AJ Bowen makes a great horror lead and his character has depth that most other films would love to have. Amy Semeitz carries over some of her "crazy eye" from 2013's Upstream Color and impresses here as Caroline, the initial cause for Vice's trip to Eden Parish. West knows how to choose a cast and it shows since even the smallest of parts are played with convincing performances across the board which leads to Gene Jones as Father.

One of the creepiest and strongest performances in a horror film in ages, Gene Jones commands the screen whenever he's present. His reveal is teased throughout the first act of the film via ominous loudspeaker announcements that are both welcoming and unnerving, adding to the power of his presence at a gathering of the entire congregation. When Jones finally takes to the screen, it's through a ten minute interview scene that under a lesser director would grind the film to a halt. Here, however, it only adds to the tension and sense of foreboding that Eden Parish isn't what it seems.

This interview is terrifying from a secular viewpoint; the members of the Parish are true followers and believers in Father and the film knows how to key in on that type of mania. Jones commands the crowd with a fervor, constantly seeking and demanding his follower's approval, while ignoring Bowen's questions and giving typical roundabout answers. His performance is convincing in a way that gets to the core value of a great horror villain. Like the best character actors, you just can't take your eyes off of him once he's on screen. It's one of the best performances in years and not just in the horror genre, this is one for the ages.

Once things get real, West ratchets up the tension like an old pro. His past two features; The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers were where he proved he's one of the best of the new school of horror directors. It only makes sense that a director like Eli Roth (Hostel) would take an interest and agree to produce The Sacrament. Those films were incredibly stylish in regard to cinematography and mood and this is no different. West finds a way to make this style his own producing one of the best of it's kind in years, maybe even the best since The Blair Witch Project. 

'Found footage' has been used to death in recent years as a way to make a horror movie on the cheap. So much so, that audiences have begun to grow weary of the once popular format and yet West with his eye for strong characters and mood hits the nail on the head. This is 'found footage' done right that shows that in capable hands can stand up to traditional techniques. As long as the story is compelling and well written, genre films like this can stand toe to toe with the best horror has to offer.

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