Patrick (Kentucker Audley) receives an invite from his former drug addicted sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) who has been living in a secluded community, Eden Parish run by the enigmatic Father (Gene Jones), for several years. He and his two friends Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg), who are also Vice reporters, go to visit her to shoot a piece about the community. When they arrive at the Eden Parish, it seems idyllic but there is something not quite right.
Ti West has a good track record of making films with an effective build up but when hitting the payoff he can be a little hit and miss, whether it be with The House of The Devil that ends with a satisfying and bold pay off or The Inkeepers that petered out with a whimper. With The Sacrament lands somewhere in the middle. West builds up an effective atmosphere of creeping dread from almost the very beginning. As with any film about a cult there is already an inbuilt cynicism in the audience and with The Sacrament it is no different. Despite the seemingly perfect nature of ‘Eden Parish’ you can’t help but shake the feeling that something is amiss, which you start to feel even before the more obvious red flags. The film builds to a tense central interview with the mysterious and enigmatic father, in front of his congregation that really shows the hold he has over them. The interview starts as an almost pleasant informal talk, as we listen to the jolly Father with his congregation whooping and laughing around them, which then turns to a something with a subtly dark edge and the feeling of being trapped and surrounded starts to creep in. When father mentions Sam’s wife and unborn child the dread is palpable and is written all over Sam’s face. The film builds and ratchets the tension up over the course of the first day and night before order breaks down for the last third of the film. This is where the film doesn’t quite stick its landing and though it remains interesting and fairly effective, it treads over ground of previous real life cult activity and, though what happens is still fairly shocking, the film never hits heavily on a grand scale that you perhaps expect it to. I was hoping for something bigger and bolder but instead was given something that I already knew about. I would say that the pay off is a little disappointing when the initial build up is so effective. This also goes with what you learn about Eden Parish as a whole. We see some of the members terrified and desperately trying to leave and we hear a little about what happens to some people in the community, which plays into the mouting tension and atmosphere, but we never get the full picture as to what evil activities are going on behind closed doors. The hints are dropped and are themselves interesting but I would have liked a bit more to be physically horrified by.
Eden Parish is an interesting creation tapping into the feeling of escape to a beautiful and barely touched land. Its occupants have seemingly found a better life outside of technology and the dangers of violence and the media that exists in cities, and I think this is something that people can relate to and partly adds to why the community is a scary prospect. It is interesting to see that most of the people there come from troubled backgrounds and lives and are finding something seemingly better; they are people who were in a bad situation and it is easy to see how they could have been persuaded and coerced by Father and his ways into staying in the community and thinking it a good place for them to be.
The handheld found footage style is probably now its own subgenre of horror and here it is used fairly effectively. By framing the film as a video shot by Vice magazine it lends the footage a sense of reality as it is the sort of thing Vice would, and actually has, film. For the most part the conceit holds out, the footage and framing rarely feeling particularly staged or set up, although the film does briefly drop it nearer the end when it changes to the traditional third person view as they choose effective over consistency.
All the acting is good and feels naturalistic, Amy Seimetz’s Caroline tries to make everything seem wonderful but reveals a glint of apprehension behind her eyes. Gene Jones’s Father is a seemingly likable man but holds an edge of threat that subtly underlies some of his lines. He effectively makes Father both convincing as a cult leader and also as a palpable danger. AJ Bowen gives an effective performance as a sceptic and conveys the fear of threats to his family and also a heroic and paternal aspect as he refuses to leave children and people behind.
The Sacrament shows Ti West as a continuing talent in modern horror and as a skilled director in creating and building a palpable tension and The Sacrament is an effective and interesting horror that is only slightly deflated by its more generic last Act.