TIFF 2013: The Sacrament Review


Ti West is the master of the slow burn. His previous two features, House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, carefully developed an atmosphere of dread before finally boiling over. The Sacrament continues this tradition of eighty minutes of build-up for ten minutes of pure, unforgiving horror. What’s interesting about this film is that the horror isn’t explained away by supernatural circumstances. Instead, it’s all too human, which is what makes it so terrifying.

Three correspondents from VICE magazine embark on a journey to document the goings-on at the Eden Parish commune in South America, where the sister of one of the correspondents is living. Their goal is to free the sister from what they imagine to be a sinister cult, but when they arrive they discover, almost to their chagrin, that people on the commune are actually happy and content. West does a commendable job of subverting our expectations and demonstrating why such an organization could be appealing to people in the first place. Of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows…especially with the armed guards surrounding the perimeter of a commune that seemingly espouses pacifist values…

The leader of the commune is a mysterious figure known as “Father” played by Gene Jones. He is an enigmatic character with an effortless ability to persuade and to recall Bible passages relevant to any situation. He’s neither overtly cruel nor sadistic, but it is his twisted and poisonous logic that infects his followers and causes much of the horror that follows.

The Sacrament is the latest film to follow in the “found-footage” tradition that The Blair Witch Project pioneered (and perfected). I think the “found-footage” genre may be the worst thing to happen to film in the past ten years (yes, even worse than unnecessary sequels). The format does not add anything to the movie, it looks terrible because of the shaky camera, but even worse than that, it’s distracts from the experience. Most filmmakers don’t like telling a story from the perspective of one camera (mostly because it looks boring), so they cheat. In The Sacrament, the VICE correspondents have two cameras (that we know of), but if you watch the film, the way it’s shot and edited requires at least three cameras for some sequences. And considering the Parish’s aversion to modern technology, this means the film makes use of a “magic camera” to keep within the “found-footage” format. It’s really quite annoying.

There’s a lot to like about The Sacrament. It’s disturbing, well-paced, and raises some interesting questions about the consequences that result from the introduction of the “outsiders” to the commune (obviously shown in naming it after the Garden of Eden). But the damn found-footage format adds nothing to the movie and is irritating distraction from what’s on-screen. How many more times do we need to see characters telling other characters to “turn that camera off?” Zero.

Grade: B

Sidenote: The worst example of the “found-footage” genre is from the superhero film Chronicle. One of the characters gains telekinetic powers so he can control the camera without actually holding it, making the latter half of the film shot as if its a traditional movie. I still have no idea why they even bothered to pretend shooting the movie in the “found-footage” format when they obviously hated doing so.

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