The second film to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival bearing Eli Roth’s name, this time in a producing capacity, is the latest horror flick from writer-director Ti West, The Sacrament. Being a big fan of two of his previous efforts, The House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2011), it’s safe to say that his latest was high on my wish-list when the schedule for the festival was first released. After seeing it Tuesday night, Ti West has only grown in my mind as one of the bright new faces of modern horror. He’s original and he doesn’t stick to what the genre has done in the past but rather twists and turns it into something all his own.
The Sacrament centers on a group of three friends, Jake (Joe Swanberg), Sam (AJ Bowen), and Patrick (Kentucker Audley), who decide to rescue Patrick’s missing sister from Eden Parish, a religious commune she now calls home. Jake and Sam are journalists for VICE magazine and decide to use the opportunity to document their journey in hopes of finding an interesting story for their readers. Well they do, it’s just not the one they had hoped for. Patrick’s sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) is now the right-hand gal for Father (Gene Jones), spiritual leader of the commune who has Caroline’s fellow members under his grasp completely. They praise him and treat him as if he was God himself, and when Sam decides to sit down with Father for a public interview in front of the entire commune, things don’t exactly go as planned.
- Incredibly Polished – From the cinematography to the editing, Ti West clearly has a grasp on what he wants to achieve and knows exactly how to get it. While many use the found footage gimmick as simply a cheap way to get a horror film made, West uses it here as the perfect tool for establishing his characters and creating an eerie atmosphere with plenty of visual flair to spare. In his previous films, West has put on full display his knack for taking what could normally be filmed as a shlocky B-grade horror film and giving it a high quality polish, and The Sacrament is no different. It looks damn good and in this case, it goes a long way.
- Great Performances – It’s safe to say that long after your screening of The Sacrament ends, you’ll still be thinking about the performance by Gene Jones. Known mostly as the gas station attendant who Anton Chigurh questions about a coin toss in No Country for Old Men, Jones sports such a big, boastful performance as Father that he should be an actor impossible to ignore from here on out. In the interview scene with Sam, Jones’ Father is completely in control. He’s confident, likable, yet utterly terrifying at the same time. He gets under your skin and knows exactly all your thoughts and desires and all you want to do is curl up into a ball, cry and beg for Father’s forgiveness. Yeah, he’s that damn good. The rest of the cast is up to par as well, with Seimetz, Swanberg, and Bowen all giving solid performances that anchor the film in a very realistic way.
- Originality – Now yes, I know, the found footage gimmick has seemingly been done to death at this point, but Ti West proves here that it can still be incredibly effective when in the right hands. The camera is every bit a character here as Father, Jake, and Sam are and is essential in placing the audience into the unsettling world of Eden Parish. What I have so admired about West’s previous films is that they feel like nothing else in the horror genre and The Sacrament is definitely of this ilk. Yes, there have many films covering this subject matter in recent memory, perhaps most notably Kevin Smith’s Red State, but what sets this film apart is that it comes at the subject matter from a very realistic point of view. In the Q & A following the film, West spoke eloquently about how he was growing weary of the incredibly unrealistic portrayals of cults in films and wanted to ground this particular cult. He wanted the audience to at least have some understanding of why these people would choose to take on such a different lifestyle, and he certainly pulls this off here in spades. Ti West: Horror-Realist.
- Honestly, I’m Not Entirely Sure – I know amongst many horror fans that West has been criticized in the past for failing to capitalize on great build-up in his films, and some may have more complaints in that regard for The Sacrament. I for one found the film completely satisfying and thought it built to a great, horrifying climax. I’m also sure there will be a chorus of those same people who won’t even want to qualify this as a horror film, but honestly, they’re wrong. Based in a rapt sense of realism, this is as horrifying as life gets. So yeah, I made my negatives (or the perceived negatives of other horror enthusiasts) into positives. Yeah, I’m that guy.
The found footage horror film hasn’t show any signs of stopping and since we can expect many more in the years to come, we can only hope that a good number of them are as compelling as The Sacrament. Films of the horror genre can be funny, gory, goofy, terrifying and various other adjectives, but they can also be intelligent. In recent years, I’ve strongly felt that there hasn’t been a more intelligent or original voice in the genre than Ti West. Following the film he proved as much in the best Q & A I have experienced at TIFF to date. He was eloquent and knew exactly what he wanted to say with the film. It was as if he came prepared with an answer for every possible question. I was even fortunate enough to get in the last question of the session, asking him about the atmosphere of his films, why they feel like something so entirely different in the horror genre, and whether he has specific horror influences. His response? Well I didn’t take notes, but rest assured, it was a good one!
Who says the horror genre can’t branch off into previously unseen sub-genres and meld with other popular film genres to form an entirely new kind of horror film? That is what makes the world of film such an exciting and constantly rewarding subject for our passion. We don’t know what is coming around the corner, and it’s safe to say that Ti West doesn’t know either, but he’s sure excited to find out what it is and take us on a journey all his own.