NB: The following contains mild spoilers for The Sacrament and Cheap Thrills.
Horror films are like a mischievous child with a wooden stick: they prod and probe at our subconscious, searching for the sensitive spots that make us jump or recoil in fear and disgust. Yet while the horror genre’s main purpose is to reflect our phobias and anxieties, it can also, on occasion, say something wider about society or human nature.
By a strange cosmic coincidence, the 6th June saw the release of two wildly different horror films which both attempt to do something more than chill our bones: EL Katz’s blackly comic Cheap Thrills, and Ti West’s faux documentary The Sacrament. The first delves into such themes as class, poverty and reality TV, while the second touches on belief, devotion and psychological power. Both films are more than a cinematic ghost train ride: whether through pitch-black satire or stark realism, they reflect our inner demons as well as our deepest fears.
Class division in Cheap Thrills
Director EL Katz and writer Trent Haaga’s Cheap Thrills is so contained, it could almost be a stage play. Taking in just four central characters and a handful of locations, it’s a low-budget film that takes on weighty themes with wit and grisly humour.
Cheap Thrills introduces 30-something Craig (Pat Healy) who once had aspirations of being a writer, but instead finds himself redundant, badly behind on his rent, and with a newborn child and out-of-work wife to support. In a bar one night, Craig meets an old school friend, Vince (Ethan Embry), whose own dreams have been dashed by the realities of economics – he’s a bone-breaking debt collector rather than the rock musician he’d hoped to become.
Their evening’s interrupted by wealthy couple Colin (David Koechner) and his much younger other half Violet (Sarah Paxton), who befriend the pair and proceed to ply them with shots of extremely expensive tequila. As drink follows drink, Colin dares Craig and Vince to pull off a stunt or two in exchange for a few dollars. “Whoever drinks the shot first gets fifty bucks,” Colin says. Then, “If the woman at the bar slaps you in the face, you get $50”, and so on.
By the time the impromptu party’s gone from a strip club, and then back to Colin’s luxurious apartment, the dares have become increasingly outlandish, and the money at stake keeps rising. And as both Craig and Vince see a means of earning enough cash to dig their way out of their respective financial chasms, they begin to turn on each other.
As an allegory for the modern age, Cheap Thrills is about as sharp as a horror movie gets. The central premise, of people being paid to do unpleasant things, could be seen as a swipe at reality TV shows like I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, but it could also be read as a parable of the class divide, and how poverty creates desperation.
Programmes on British television like Benefits Street are examples of how the working classes are manipulated to turn on each other rather than those with real power and influence. It’s telling that, in Cheap Thrills, one brief moment of insurrection is quickly quelled by the promise of yet more money.
In a post-financial crisis landscape, it’s pertinent, compelling stuff, but Cheap Thrills reaches deeper still, right into the grasping, bleak pit of human nature itself. Manipulation, greed, jealousy and cruelty – all of this is laid bare in Cheap Thrills. It’s a blackly comic sketch of a dog-eat-dog world.
The need to belong in The Sacrament
The Sacrament could so easily have been made as a low-budget, exploitation shocker – something akin to Cannibal Holocaust with cult members instead of a flesh-eating tribe. Instead, director Ti West creates something far more restrained and unnerving – a film about disturbing desires and instincts rather than graphic bloodletting.
Based loosely on the Jonestown massacre – a real event which took place in the late 1970s – The Sacrament sees Vice Magazine journalist Sam Turner (You’re Next’s AJ Bowen) head to a remote part of South Africa to cover the story of a commune called Eden Parish. With his cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) and photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) in tow, Sam starts exploring this little huddle of huts and the devoted followers who inhabit them.
What Sam finds appears to be a utopia: a community driven not by swivel-eyed fanaticism but by a desire to live healthily and self-sufficiently, with as little contact with the technological gadgets of the modern world as possible. For the first half of the story, the leader of the commune – a man the disciples all fondly call Father – lurks on the periphery, heard chattering benignly over a speaker system or spoken about in reverent tones, but never actually seen.
When Father finally emerges (superbly played by Gene Jones), it’s in front of the assembled community one dark and sultry night, and Sam is unprepared for the leader’s charisma and sly means of ducking a question. It’s here, too, that we begin to get a glimpse of what lies beneath this apparently cheerful community: the somewhat creepy way people hang onto Father’s every word. Father’s unfailing ability to make even a passing remark sound like a threat. The armed guards who lurk at the periphery of the village. And what kind of religious leader wears sunglasses at night?
Then, shortly after Sam’s interview with Father comes to an awkward close, a little girl hands him a piece of paper which changes the story’s complexion entirely: “Please help us,” it reads.
The Sacrament is unusual both in terms of its measured pace and its balanced approach to its subject matter. In this regard, The Sacrament is a little like Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, in that it depicts its remote community not only realistically, but also in a way that makes it seem almost attractive. It’s hard not to be swayed at least a little by Father’s right-on political messages (“Poverty, violence, greed and racism – the foundations of a cancerous society”, he says), and before everything starts to go wrong, even Sam admits that he can see why disillusioned Americans might want to travel thousands of miles to live there.
Idyllic and utopian though Eden Parish seems, human nature ultimately proves to be the community’s undoing. Father feeds off the powerful hold he has over his people, something which builds to a horribly destructive and unpleasant conclusion, as the bulk of his congregation reveal their own, seemingly unthinking willingness to do whatever he says.
Although they’re two wildly different films, both Cheap Thrills and The Sacrament explore similar themes. Both are about power, exploitation and control, whether it’s a millionaire’s sadistic sway over a couple of drunk and desperate men, or a religious leader’s influence on a group of people desperate to find stability and meaning. In both instances, that desire for power reaches violent and devastating extremes.
In a genre often populated by paranormal activities or masked killers, Cheap Thrills and The Sacrament stand out as unusual pieces of horror. Although neither are without flaw, they dare to find horror in the relatively mundane rather than the supernatural. Like a child with a wooden stick, they prod and probe at the worrying quirks in our collective psychology, and the results are as refreshing as they are disturbing.
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