Monday, October 20, 2014

Is That Store Brand Electric Kook-Aid?

Don't ask me why, but I love cults. I mean, I don't LOVE as in I want to hug them or have their children or, heaven forbid, BE IN ONE, but I just find the concept truly fascinating. The idea that someone can have such an explosive combination of charisma and ego that can drive dozens or hundreds of people to follow him or her blindly is horrifying. 

I recall quite the media stir when the Heaven's Gate cult made its move, the suicide of 39 people mysteriously clad in Nike sneakers. David Letterman couldn't get enough of its joke factor, but it was a documentary I watched as an impressionable teenager that truly haunted me. The key element was that this TV special--I've never been able to find it again--showed footage of some of the Heaven's Gate members before their full-on entrance into the community, then included interviews recorded with them after. All had shaved their heads and wore plain, genderless clothes. You could barely tell one apart from the other, much less match them to the 'normal' person they had been shown as earlier. Most striking was the look in their eyes as they talked about their community. It was perfectly blank. And again, identical on every subject.

I don't remember ever being quite so unnerved. Perhaps it was just really good editing, but the idea that your friend or sibling or spouse could transform into a minion with no discernible person of their own was terrifying. Granted, some of my favorite sitcom moments used the same idea to great comedic effect, but it doesn’t really minimize the horror.

With The House of the Devil, Ti West came upon the modern horror scene like its own version of a new messiah. I was let down by The Innkeepers, haven’t been able to get through V/H/S, and found his installment in The ABCs of Death rather eye-rolling. But I root for the guy. And he made a film about a cult. So let’s do this.

Quick Plot: A pair of Brooklyn documentary filmmakers named Jake and Sam (Joe Swanberg and A.J. Bowen, two talented men fast becoming the faces of 21st century horror) learn that their friend Patrick has received a mysterious message from his ex-addict sister (Amy Seimetz). She's living with a private community in an unnamed country and asks him to visit, although she can't/won't give any specific details about its location.

Intrigued. Sam and Jake decide to join Patrick on the trip, cameras and go get 'em attitude in place. As soon as they're greeted by local guards wielding machine guns, the mood starts to change.

Welcome to Jonestown. Because, let's face it, that's exactly what The Sacrament is. 

You know that standard credit that rolls at the end of every movie? The "characters in this film are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental." Well, The Sacrament has one. And that's kind of ridiculous.

Ti West knows how to make a good horror film. He can build suspense. He can use music effectively (even forgiving the fact that this is found footage, so the soundtrack would have mysteriously been added after the fact). He has a great hand with actors. All of that is clear with The Sacrament. 

It's an effective film. It's unsettling, as any tale about a cult led by a creepily charismatic leader willing to herd them into mass suicide (or “suicide,” as it were) would be. The problem, of course, is that it’s not an original tale. It's also not admitting to be, you know, what amounts to a dramatization of one of America's most unsettling real-life horror stories.

The story of Jonestown is readily documented in various books and films (several of which are also streaming on Netflix). The Sacrament, however, never claims to be about Jonestown. It also never deviates in any notable way from the events that went down in Guyana in 1978. 

So what's the point? Is West just trying to turn a historical event into a modern horror film? If he's trying to say something about the nature of cults, well, he's not doing so in any way that history hasn't already. It makes for an incredibly odd viewing experience. Especially when, even at the very end, we get a roll of text that sums up the fictional massacre as if it were real. And then credits roll. Because it wasn’t real.

I’ve been begging for more cult-based horror for as long as I’ve been writing about it. I find the concept fascinating and rife for exploration. But why explore territory if you’re not going to make a single original observation? Sam and Jake are almost set up to be the hipster New York journalists without any real understanding of the world that’s not theirs, but the film backs away from that, instead making them fairly genuine guys just trying to get out alive and help if they can. They don’t really even get much of an arc. 

Ultimately, the only interesting character is Seimetz’s Caroline, mostly because her story is one we haven’t heard before. We’ve seen the footage of Jim Jones preaching and heard the documentation of what the aftermath of his massacre looked like. Had the film maybe dug deeper or explored a viewpoint we don’t already know, at least it would have felt new. Instead, it feels unnecessary and even, extremely tasteless. 

High Points
When your cast includes a batch of young actors who have spent the last few years in improvised low budget filmmaking, it’s no surprise that the performances are far more natural than your average found footage horror movie

Low Points
Aside from the already explained bafflement I had at the motivation behind the film, there are a few major issues with transplanting a story from the '70s into the 2010s (whatever this decade is called). The People's Temple drew in crowds in a big part because of where America was at the time. I'm not saying this country is now an eden of its own to black citizens or the elderly or anyone not falling in line with the U.S. government, but The Sacrament never makes any kind of effort to justify why so many different types of people are willing to give everything to a false messiah.

Lessons Learned
People in fashion should own boots

Cell phones won’t get reception in the middle of a creepy religious commune, but thankfully, there are plenty of spots to plug in and keep your battery well charged

Helicopter pilots have a pretty high tolerance to pain

I don't really know how to recommend The Sacrament. It's a finely made film, extremely unsettling where it needs to be and strongly acted by a cast that's comfortable playing the found footage naturalism (the fact that Joe Swanberg directed the improvised Drinking Buddies certainly helps). Personally, I just don't understand why Ti West would simply retell the story of Jonestown without, as far as I felt form this viewing, bringing anything other than a good filmmaker's eye to it. Am I missing something? The film is streaming on Instant Watch, so I'd be happy for readers to check it out and share their thoughts. I haven't felt this conflicted about how to feel about a film in quite a long time.

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