“What we lack in modern comfort we more than make up for in humanity,” says Charles Anderson Reed, the charismatic leader of Eden Parish – a devoutly Christian commune located in a remote part of South Africa. His devoted followers live in small wooden huts (or cottages, as the leader romantically refers to them), work the land and gather for worship in the evening.
Vice Magazine journalist Sam (AJ Bowen) heads to Eden Parish to find out the story behind the commune. He’s joined by his faithful cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg), and a photographer, Patrick (Kentucker Audley), whose sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) joined the collective in order to get over a nasty drug habit. When the group arrive, they find what appears to be a utopia. Food and water seem to be plentiful, everyone looks healthy, and nobody has a bad word to say about their pastor, who they fondly refer to as ‘Father’. So why do armed guards stand at Eden Parish’s gates, and why does Father himself (played by Gene Jones), despite his right-on sermons about racial equality and economic freedom, have a slightly sinister air about him?
Writer, director and editor Ti West’s documentary-style horror bides its time and expertly builds up tension. Films in this sub-genre aren’t often noted for their pin-sharp cinematography, but Eric Robbins’ lensing here is immediately striking – with a few precisely-composed shots, he captures the beauty and simmering heat of the verdant location, and also the shadowy sense of menace lurking beneath the idyll.
The three leads (Bowen, Swanberg and Audley) are good value, and West’s script highlighting how these three well-heeled city boys are so out of their element in the rugged wilds of South Africa. But the film really belongs to Gene Jones as Father, who like Harry Lime in The Third Man, casts a long pall over the story long before we even see him. It’s not until the second act that Father makes his grand entrance, and it takes the form of a 10-minute nocturnal interview with AJ Bowden’s journalist. Jones is superb here: charismatic, manipulative, and possessed with the ability to imply threat without overtly stating it.
It also says a great deal about West’s abilities as both a writer and director that this scene is as nervy and mesmerising as the more overtly horrific moments in his earlier films, such as The Innkeepers and The House Of The Devil.
Then again, The Sacrament isn’t a typical horror flick, at least in the entertainingly scary, horror-as-ghost-train ride definition of the genre. Loosely based on a true life incident which took place in Guyana in 1978 (you can Google it if you really want the plot of The Sacrament spoiled for you), West’s film is as much a drama and thriller as it is a horror, with the first half devoted almost exclusively to building up the sense of realism and dread.
The Sacrament’s second half drifts into more conventional horror territory, yet even here West refuses to let us off the hook; this is the kind of horror that unnerves and creeps under the skin rather than titillates with splashes of gore, and it’s all the more effective for it. That said, one or two moments do seem a little too clichéd for comfort – particularly a panicked direct-to-camera address straight out of The Blair Witch Project – and it could be argued that not all the character decisions necessarily ring true.
Insatiable gore hounds may find themselves frustrated by The Sacrament’s predatory approach, but those looking for a horror film with depth and no small amount of intelligence will almost certainly be satisfied. On a relatively low budget, West has crafted an unusual genre film within a typical horror structure. Like an indie, genre version of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, it’s a journey into the darker reaches of the human psyche, with Gene Jones providing its Colonel Kurtz-like heart of darkness.
Throw in some atmospheric, John Carpenter-like music from Tyler Bates and uniformly strong performances from the rest of the cast, and you have a lean, tense movie with several perfectly-judged moments to still the blood.
The Sacrament is out on the 6th June in UK cinemas.
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