Thirty-three years on from “Cannibal Holocaust” and fourteen from “The Blair Witch Project,” found-footage horror is still going strong. It’s no surprise really: they’re cheap to make, consistently popular and almost always hugely profitable. But even with the “Paranormal Activity” and “V/H/S” franchises riding high, we do sometimes wonder how much more juice the genre has in it — it feels like a long time since we saw anything genuinely fresh in the form and this is particularly dispiriting given the amount of cheap knock-offs that are appearing over time.
Enter Ti West. The filmmaker marked himself as one of the more promising young directors the genre had to offer with the one-two punch of “The House Of The Devil ” and “The Innkeepers,” which stood out by going against the prevailing winds and nodding to classic ’70s horror rather than more contemporary influencers. Having dipped his toe in found footage waters with a segment of the original “V/H/S,” West dives under completely for his fifth feature “The Sacrament,” which premiered at the Venice Film Festival today. It has its fair share of problems, but credite the flick with bringing a relatively fresh angle to the genre.
Framed as a Vice documentary in their “Immersionism” style, we’re told at the off that fashion photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) has received a letter from his troubled, drug-addicted sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz), telling him she’s cleaned up after joining a sober-living commune called Eden Parish. But the mysterious group has suddenly upped and moved abroad en masse to a secret location. Concerned for his sister, Patrick gets an invitation to visit, and brings along Vice documentarian Sam (AJ Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) to report on the organization.
They’re flown by helicopter to the secret location (which seems to be somewhere around the Caribbean, judging by the locals’ accents), and told that they’ll be picked up at 8am the next morning. Initially, the cameras are met with some hostility, but a clean-and-sober Caroline smooths things over, and the visitors are impressed by what they see — it appears to be a genuine idyll, where good people have escaped the troubles and temptations of modern life to live off the land. But they’re a little troubled by the group’s leader, Father (Gene Jones, best known for “No Country For Old Men“), and once they scratch beneath the surface, it becomes clear that something is very wrong at Eden Parish.
The first forty minutes or so of “The Sacrament” represent a pretty impressive piece of world building on the part of West. The three protagonists (all performed decently and with restraint) are neatly set up without it feeling too expositional, while a fair number of Parish members come with diverse backgrounds and stories (most notably “The Color Wheel” star Kate Lyn Sheil, another member of the incestuous troupe that have appeared in several of West’s films, and tangentially-related ones like “You’re Next“).
There’s some cunning storytelling going down too, the camera elegantly sets up the geography of the commune, which will pay off when shit goes down later on. In fact when combined with the loudspeaker pronouncements from Father, it feels like the calm-before-the-storm segments of video games like “Bioshock,” a rare example of tropes from that world being transplanted intelligently to the big screen without it feeling like someone else is holding the controller.
Even if you were unaware of the genre you’d know that shit was likely to go down from the earliest moments of “The Sacrament,” thanks to Tyler Bates‘ throbbing, dread-fueled Carpenter-esque score. The tension really is beautifully ramped up in these early scenes and gets an audience well prepped to watch carnage unfold around people you’ve truly come to care about.
Then, when the thing goes off, it’s not with a bang but with something more like a a whimper. Without giving too much away, there’s no supernatural aspect at play and if “The Sacrament” is a horror film — and that could be up for debate — it’s about the horror that ensues when people put their faith in the wrong person. It’s refreshing to see a found footage film deal with this kind of grounded subject matter and doubly so that the film’s climax takes place entirely in the daytime. And yet it doesn’t quite work, not because it’s set in the light, but because the climax ends up being ultimately what you probably guessed it was early on and it pretty much plays out in the most obvious (and relatively-speaking, stakes-free) way you could imagine. There’s not much left in the way of tension or surprises and it can’t do anything except feel like a huge anticlimax.
West doesn’t help his cause by breaking the found-footage rules he’d previously kept carefully within the bounds of. A third POV camera is introduced without explanation for the purposes of reaction shots, and one of the originals is left behind, despite its footage clearly being used in the finished “film.” It’s symptomatic of the hastiness with which the conclusion seems to have been cooked up, and ultimately emblematic of what a missed opportunity the film proves to be. [C+]