West is a clever, self-aware filmmaker who makes movies laced with subtle but confident in-jokes for discerning viewers. He wears his influences like merit badges on a sash: Tom Noonan's ham-chomping turn as a gothic, Peter Vincent-like television host sets the tone nicely for West's debut "The Roost," which is replete with old-school horror radio dramas that pour from static-addled car radios, and smart-ass kids who look at creepy barns and say, "No way, man."
In "The Innkeepers," West sits us down in front of a laptop as we watch an empty rocking chair, waiting for something to happen — and waiting, and waiting, when suddenly a creepy face inexplicably and unfairly materializes with a shriek. It's one of those annoying pranks people played on friends during the advent of the internet (and those friends never seemed to learn), but it's also a bit of satire designed to mock lazy horror filmmaking.
In his breakthrough film, "The House of the Devil," West displays masterful control of visual and aural occurrences, and thus controls our emotional responses, like a cinematic sorcerer manipulating what we see, what we hear, and what we feel. He seems to have studied the work of one of cinema's all-time great manipulators, William Friedkin, who always toyed with his audiences without remorse. At his best, West utilizes an arsenal of old-school tricks — in-camera and practical effects, droning sounds, slow hypnotic zooms that render the quotidian (a pool table in a darkened room) sinister, and well-placed camera seizures — to synthesize a singular feeling.
All this, and yet his characters have depth: Jocelin Donahue's baby-sitting college student in "The House of the Devil" is truly easy to empathize with, and her friendship with Greta Gerwig feels genuine. That's the Ti West style — the polygamous marriage of four decades worth of horror knowledge, used to heave leisurely-paced terror at people we like.
Unfortunately, "The Sacrament" lacks just about every element of that style. It lacks the control, the composure, the self-awareness, and the strong characters. Channeling the Jonestown Massacre, West tries to fuse the frustratingly over-saturated found footage style with the paranoid unease that pervades his body of work. A trio of Vice Media journalists head to a commune called Eden Parish, to which Patrick (Kentucker Audley), a Vice fashion photographer, has been invited by his estranged sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz), who has apparently joined the mysterious commune. Patrick brings along cameraman Jake (mumblecore innovator Joe Swanberg) and Sam (AJ Bowen, usually an interesting on-screen presence, but here struggling to overcome the burdensome boredom of his character), so the three can hopefully put together a compelling story for their invidious outlet.
The casting of Swanberg as an accomplished cameraman is probably the movie's single enlightened asset, giving us both a reason to accept the careful, confident camerawork as believable and tossing a nod to fans.
At Eden Parish, the reporters discover an ostensible Utopia run by the not-so-mysterious Father (Gene Jones), whose open distrust of the media quickly swells into the paranoid but persuasive monologues of a drug-abusing lunatic. The dimmest viewers will immediately catch on to Father's schemes and recognize the signs of brain-washing, even if they have no concept of history. It doesn't take long to figure out that something is wrong here, though the film's trailer — and its title — gave that away already.
"The Sacrament" is a missed opportunity to further expand West's pallet. Instead of twisting conventions and playing with expectations, West plays into expectations. It's his least self-aware film to date, and his least clever. Look at the would-be trickster sneaking up on his friend in "The Roost," the kid who finds himself making scary faces at her back when she doesn't notice him. Consider the ominous empty space that begs to be filled with scary imagery, as the violins buzz like a flotilla of hornets and the cameras languidly stares at nothing, and the crashing crescendo and jump-scare never come. Or AJ Bowen's cigarette-smoking creep who pops up in a graveyard and smooth-talks Greta Gerwig in "The House of the Devil," only to discover that she isn't the girl he's after (you can almost hear him thinking, "Aw, man"), so BLAM! He shoots her in the face. It's a well-earned scared, a pay-off in the wake of unease deftly conjured and sustained, then shattered, and it ends with a joke: Bowen reaches down, picks up Gerwig's bloody, still-smoldering cigarette and smokes it.
Even with "The Sacrament," however, West is once again a keen emulator of time and place. As with the Reagan-era peril of "The House of the Devil," shot with epochal equipment, an authentic air envelopes the scenery in "The Sacrament." The Jonestown-esque community feels genuine, and the villagers seem like real enough people (particularly Seimetz, whose indie cred is indeed matched by her subtlety as an actress). But we know what's going to happen the whole way through: the Jonestown massacre isn’t exactly obscure, so the suspense is painfully lame.
The aptly-named Gene Jones is good enough as Father, but nothing is unexpected here. There is no surprise — no A.J. Bowen popping up for a smoke in a graveyard, no scary ghost girls rising out of a tangle of bed sheets. The characters are flat and the film isn't remotely scary. The manipulation and lies that permeated Jonestown and spurred the tragic demise of so many lives is ripe material for West, but he can't transcend the conventions of found-footage. His ability to find tense loneliness in empty space is lost here.
West's best films are traditional spook-fests that harken back to "Changeling" and "Rosemary's Baby," filtered through the culture-savvy wit of Joe Dante and tinged with the cruel, cryptic irony of Kubrick. But "The Sacrament" feels less like the clever, self-knowing films West has thus far produced and more like every other forgettable entry in the over-crowded coterie of found-footage films. In trying his hand at found footage West has lost touch with his talents.
A version of this review ran last month. "The Sacrament" opens in New York this week and is currently available on video-on-demand platforms.