Real Monsters: The Sacrament

06/04/2014 4:00 AM |

The Sacrament
Directed by Ti West

Indie horror maven Ti West has succeeded by not sticking to any subgenre: he adopts well-worn varieties and reinvigorates them—that is, the setups are familiar, but the execution is exhilarating: his stripped-down reworking of Deliverance, Trigger Man; the grimy, 70s-style occult slasher, The House of the Devil; and the classical/Spielbergian ghost story, The Innkeepers. His latest plays with a more recent trend in scary movies, found footage, with actors playing Vice reporters who visit a hippie commune carved out of remote jungle; the movie is structured like an episode of the media company’s HBO series: explanatory titles fill in gaps in the shakily shot footage, as does direct-camera narration by 21st-century-horror ubiquity AJ Bowen. Journalism is the perfect medium for West to adopt here, as the film’s frights are from the real-world: he eschews Devil’s supernaturalness and Innkeepers’ paranormality, focusing instead on the potential evil of mankind itself.

At first, everything seems pretty nice. “Eden Parish” is like heaven on Earth; sure, it’s a little creepy—and is far more sinister as midnight approaches, with the appearance of terrified dissidents—but for much of the movie it’s an attractive community: put-together, self-sustaining, freed from poverty, racism and violence. West spends the bulk of the film building up the place and its lifestyle so he can tear it down; he’s a master of mounting tension, establishing character and atmosphere before the long-deferred snap. Here, that inevitable break is particularly horrifying, and involves a whole bunch of people drinking the Kool-Aid—you know, literally.

The villain is a conspicuously Jim Jones-like leader, known as Father, played larger-than-life by Gene Jones. (The rest of the cast is a familiar roster of indie hotshots: Joe Swanberg, Kentucker Audley, Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Sheil. Even the crew: I don’t think I’ve ever before blurted out “oh, he’s awesome!” after reading the sound designer’s name; it’s director-in-his-own-right
Graham Reznick.) Jones proves a terrifying brand of boogeyman, more pernicious than any monster with a knife: he can kill dozens if not hundreds of people using his words, without ever lifting a weapon. The creepiest thing of all is humanity’s capacity for madness: not the armed psychokillers hidden in shadows but the twisted leaders right out in the open—and those troubled and desperate enough to follow them.

Opens June 6