I love Ti West. You love Ti West. All of us who love horror love Ti West. I mean, he’s the future, right? Proof that the genre is in good hands moving forward. The guy we’re all rooting for. The next big thing.
But ya know what? Even the finest directors make an occasional misstep, and as much as it feels like rooting against the home team to say that’s what 2013’s THE SACRAMENT is — well, that’s what 2013’s THE SACRAMENT is.
But not, necessarily, for all the reasons you might be thinking — “found footage” horrors are played out, Eli Roth hanging around as an air-quote “producer” is getting tiresome, etc. In truth, for the type of story being told here, “found footage” fits the bill just fine, and I can detect little to no “stain of Roth” on the proceedings. No, where THE SACRAMENT comes up short is in the fact that we’ve seen more or less this exact same story done before — anyone remember GUYANA: CRIME OF THE CENTURY? — and in perpetuating dangerous, and frankly racist, myths about the massacre (not “mass suicide”) that occurred at Jonestown in 1978.
Now, hold your horses — before you think I’m accusing West of being a racist himself, let me state for the record that he’s not, at least to my knowledge. But he has, like most people, bought into the official lie of what happened at Jonestown, a lie regurgitated frequently by the media, and that lie is, in fact, rooted in racism (as was Jim Jones’ entire operation). So let’s be clear that’s what I’m talking about when I bring up the “R word” here. Simply put, the idea that a charismatic but insane white preacher convinced a bunch of ignorant and trusting black people — particularly black women — to pour poison Kool-aid down the mouths of their babies before taking their own lives in similar fashion is a monumental, despicable, unconscionable, racist lie. It’s a lie that’s been spoon-fed to us for a good few decades now, and most folks still believe it, but there’s no evidence to support it, there never has been, and there is, in fact, a wealth of evidence to suggest that the victims at Jonestown didn’t kill themselves at all but were, in fact, murdered.
For those unfamiliar with this side of the story I appreciate the fact that I probably sound like a raving “conspiracy loon” at this point, but I assure you that numerous respected researchers, as well as many of the victims’ relatives, have been pursuing this very same subject doggedly for years now. Heck, a court of law right here in the US even granted a huge compensation award to many of the family members who stated that no less than the CIA itself was responsible for the tragedy in Guyana. That claim, as you’d probably expect, remains unpaid as of this writing.
Still — what’s the CIA got to do with it all, you may ask at this point? Well, quite a lot, as it turns out, but as I don’t want to go too far down that rabbit hole when I’m just supposed to be writing a movie review here, let me just say that anyone interested in learning more would do well to follow this link to read a detailed, exhaustive analysis of what really happened at Jonestown written by the late, great John Judge. It’s unsettling information, to be sure, and proof that reality is far more horrific than even the most graphic and uncompromising works of fiction (cinematic or otherwise), but if you’re in the mood to have your blinders about how the world actually works taken off (and taken off forcibly, at that), Judge’s essay is essential reading.
And on that note — let’s get back to the flick, shall we? Essentially what West is going for here is a “what if Jonestown happened in the internet age?” angle, and it’s a pretty obvious approach, since this material lends itself well to the “immersionism” style of journalism so popular online these days. To that end, he has a three-man crew (composed of fellow “splat-packer” Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, and Kentucker — -dear God, that’s a stupid name — Audley) from vice.com (you know them — they’re the folks whose coverage of what was really going down “on the ground” in Ferguson, Missouri recently absolutely blew the mainstream media’s slanted take on things out of the water) down to an unnamed South American jungle nation to investigate the happenings at a religious commune called Eden Parish when one of the triumvirate’s sister, a recovering drug addict (played by Amy Seimetz) sends a letter back home that sounds just too damn good to be true.
And, from there, we basically know how everything else plays out. That probably sounds mighty dismissive, but shit, it’s true: the unnamed country is Guyana, Eden Parish is an obvious stand-in for Jonestown, and the camp’s leader (portrayed superbly by Gene Jones) even goes by the self-appointed title of “Father,” as Jones himself did. Our internet journalists essentially fill the role played in real life by the late congressman Leo Ryan and the team of reporters and photographers he brought down with him down to the jungle in that they’re threatening to expose the phony “socialist paradise” that Jones (who was, in point of fact, a hard-line right-winger despite his public pronouncements to the contrary) said he was constructing for what it was — a slave-labor camp — and neither they, nor the people living there, can be allowed to survive once “father”‘s sadistic shell game has been exposed as a fraud. From there, it’s just a matter of time until the final — and titular — sacrament occurs and everyone offs themselves.
To West’s credit, he does at least show that many people were less than willing to go gently into that less-than-good-night and were either forced at gunpoint to do so, or else just plain shot. To his discredit, he portrays all of the armed “security” goons at Eden Parish as being black, when in truth, all of Jones’ inner circle — including every single person he entrusted with firearms — was white. The black members, for their part, were forced to work the fields and do the heavy labor of construction, etc. — the place was pretty much a plantation-cum-concentration-camp.
Please don’t misunderstand, though — for all its toeing of the “company line,” the series of events that play out in THE SACRAMENT are definitely frightening in and of themselves, and West, in his role as writer/director, makes sure they all pack a reasonable enough punch. But you’d have to have been living under a rock for most of your life to not know how this is all going to end. Hell, even if you want a basic re-hashing of the standard media line vis a vis Jonestown — which is all this flick really amounts to at the end of the day — the PBS Frontline special JONESTOWN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PEOPLES TEMPLE from a few years back is much better, and frankly a whole lot scarier.
Does that mean THE SACRAMENT isn’t worth checking out? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that — especially now that it’s streaming on Netflix and you can see it for free (I’d been eagerly awaiting its debut on there and watched it the day it came out — and it’s also, of course, available on DVD and Blu-ray, although I can’t fairly comment on the specifics of those versions). West is still a promising young (ish) horror auteur whose career is well worth following, and while this film doesn’t measure up anywhere near HOUSE OF THE DEVIL or THE INNKEEPERS — hell, I’d even argue that CABIN FEVER 2 was better — it’s still got its moments, especially when Jones (as in Gene, not Jim) is on the screen.
Truth be told, though, you can live without it, too. I’m not nearly as sick of “found footage” horror as most of my fellow internet pseudo-critics are, but there are literally dozens of better examples of the genre available on Netflix alone, and for a film supposedly centered on “new journalism,” the fact that West misses the big story in regards to his subject is, frankly, inexcusable.
For a different take, check out Matt’s review here!