By Tom Nixon
Ti West has collaborated with an array of mumblecore luminaries including Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Sheil, Adam Wingard and Greta Gerwig, but his films largely disassociate themselves from that polarising movement. Rather, he’s a child of The Shining, Polanski’s Paranoia trilogy and all those late night ’80s exploitation knockoffs of the same; a genre nostalgist whose flare for revitalising old-fashioned horror tropes is complemented by empathic characterisation and a no-bullshit disregard for contemporary trends. Indeed, few modern filmmakers of any kind would concern themselves with something so goofy as a Victorian mansion occupied by Satan-worshippers who lure babysitters in to be sacrificed every time an eclipse comes around, but The House of the Devil – with which West divisively burst onto the scene in 2009 – unapologetically did just that, and treated the material with near-inexplicable amounts of care and elegance. In our age of torture porn, computer-generated gore, jittery handheld camerawork and other such gratuitous and generally un-cinematic bad habits, such a stubborn and affectionate throwback was something to be savoured, and West emerged with his reputation greatly enhanced.
This was a movie which waited a torturously long time before showing its hand, preferring to gradually seep a sourceless dread into the viewer’s consciousness. West manipulated one’s sense of the house’s interiors with all the classic cinematic weapons, expertly executed; deliberate and rhythmic pacing, perspective-stunting close-ups, languorous zooms and tracking shots, a voyeuristic camera lingering on negative space or offering tantalising glimpses of possible threats in the periphery, meticulously composed frames which control the eye’s gaze with their interplay of light and shadow, unnatural sounds that prove difficult to locate or identify. It was convenient that protagonist Samantha was the kind of idiot who’d sit in a room with all the lights on and curtains open despite being scared out of her wits, or dance around with her Walkman on after freaking out over strange noises, but the eighties period design was so casually and credibly ingrained that she seemed more anachronistic than unrealistic, a tribute to the days when horror heroines were too pure to react practically to danger.
Carrying that slow-burn brand of mounting trepidation into the interiors of a hotel on the cusp of closure, The Innkeepers built on its predecessor by populating a tacky ghost story with even more believable slacker twenty-somethings, and injecting it with a surprisingly resonant coming-of-age metaphor. Just as West refuses to abandon the kooky genre tricks of his adolescence, the half-stripped, largely deserted Yankee Pedlar Inn desperately clung to its remaining handful of customers, and the near-jaded ghost-hunting protagonist Claire held fast to the last vestiges of childhood innocence. Ghosts are the ideal symbol for a lost and happier past of course, and just as the babysitting job in The House of the Devil was a last resort from impending economic disaster, Claire’s deadly search for the supernatural became surprisingly tragic once revealed to be an evasion of the encroaching adult world of poverty, disconnection and decay.
Up to this point there are two schools of thought regarding Ti West. On the one hand, he should be credited with keeping a dying tradition afloat almost single-handedly (Rob Zombie may beg to differ) in the US, stubbornly resisting the lure of the cash grab in favour of proficient, passionate homage to vintage horror, complete with a human core. Alternatively, it’s been argued that he’s wasting his considerable talents on limited if not tawdry material, and would be best served by branching out into more fertile soil. Where those two camps align is in praising West’s absolute filmmaking precision, a skill in audiovisual manipulation unrivalled in modern horror. What they agree on, in other words, is that a found-footage movie would be the absolute worst goddamn thing he could possibly think to do, a style which by its cheap, amateurish, first-person nature doesn’t remotely play to his strengths.
Alas, if there’s one thing West shares with his mumblecore buddies it’s that he doesn’t tend to pander to the expectations of his fanbase, his producers or anybody else, and so his latest film The Sacrament is indeed an entry into that most gimmicky of horror sub-sets. Its cinematography is imbued with a certain vintage quality, and its characters and atmosphere achieve a level of authenticity rarely bestowed upon this traditionally lazy style of filmmaking, but it’s still a found-footage movie, employing the full repertoire of jerky handheld shots, leaden exposition and tiresome narrative contrivances to justify keeping the camera rolling. By shooting in a style which nullifies rather than rewards his usual calling card of technical excellence, he’s left himself at a serious disadvantage and, as feared, even he can only occasionally land on an expressive shot or affecting sequence amid the DV production values and frantic wobbling. Maybe he’s disarming himself as a challenge or experiment, in which case one can only hope he’s learned his lesson.
The Sacrament revolves around three men who work for VICE Media, the real life documentary series known for its unbiased immersionist coverage of extreme subject matter. Patrick Carter’s (Kentucker Audley) sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) has left rehab, joined a commune and invited Patrick to visit, though she’s a little mysterious about the nature (the clue may or may not be in the name Eden Parish) and location of her new home. Co-workers Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) come along for the ride in the hope of documenting some eccentric shit on their digital cameras, but Eden Parish turns out to be a refuge akin to Claire’s in The Innkeepers, populated by minorities and lost lambs who’ve been disenfranchised by the outside world, ready and willing to explain their retreat into this insular egalitarian paradise. If only we got to spend more time with these surprisingly rounded people before everything goes to pot.
With a performance to almost rival that of Tom Noonan’s in The House of the Devil, Gene Jones slays it as the not so benevolent “father” of this cult, introduced via a staged interview which, at a push, analogises cult brainwashing, celebrity culture and moviegoing. He spins his self-help spiel, communal platitudes and biblical quotations with the sleazy charm and easy sophistry of a born prophet, businessman and dictator — naturally, his flock laps it up, and interviewer Sam is powerless in the face of his fierce rhetoric and indelible stage presence. He’s essentially a cartoon, but I don’t know that a man capable of acquiring so many wide-eyed followers would appear any different, and the film benefits greatly from his scenery-chewing. In his just-this-side-of-camp theatricality he epitomises its greatest strength, utilised far too infrequently; a sense of fun and gleeful showmanship. On rare occasions, West will alleviate the amorphous self-seriousness of his three leads/”distinguished guests” with a sly and welcome joke, visual or otherwise. One of the best comes early, when a journalist suggests in anticipation of their trip “maybe we can call this one ‘the VICE guide to the Carter family reunion’“, and West cuts to the title card saying…. The Sacrament? Oh.
So far so tolerable then, but from the very minute the Jonestown parallels hit second gear, West’s commitment to allowing this commune its fair due devolves depressingly quickly into a series of ticked boxes, graphic deaths and outright incoherent nonsense. West’s pay-offs have always kerplunked like limp afterthoughts (in fairness, a lack of spare film forced him to keep the end of The Innkeepers economical), only excused by the gloriously manipulative extended set-up that was clearly the graceful stylist’s primary concern. But The Sacrament’s build-up is more intriguing than visceral, and the descent into carnage is telegraphed, perfunctory and ultimately exploitative. When, for example, a trail of drool hangs out of Kate Lyn Sheil’s mouth as her corpse is used as a shield, one thinks back firstly to the one brief scene she spent actually being alive and trying to generate empathy for her character, then to the hundreds of people who’ve died in real life cult suicides and, finally, to the words “Eli Roth presents” which flashed up at the start. Seimetz may well be the MVP as the desperately devoted Caroline, and the final long take with her brother would be exceptionally harrowing in a different context, but here it’s just another pre-determined step on the road to annihilation, lacking in any poetry, stakes or purpose.
As it reaches its conclusion the film increasingly flirts with questions about the alienation of modern democracy, the arrogance of well-meaning foreign intervention and the unavoidably toxic effects of guerrilla media coverage, but West seems so infatuated by the idea of VICE’s “subjective, honest journalism” and so unwilling to punish his heroes that The Father’s accusations of their/our complicity ring hollow. If The Sacrament is attempting to criticise the bloodlust of modern horror from within it also fails, for this tired, hackneyed material can’t carry a coherent allegory, and ideas are thrown around as haphazardly as the camera which jerkily documents them. His life hanging by a thread, one of the journalists utters into the camera “whatever happens, this story needs to be told“, and it sounds like West is trying to convince himself. Either way, the Ti West I know and love understood that the power of a story depends less on its content than on the creativity with which it’s told, and that is where The Sacrament falls way short of its antecedents.
Tom Nixon is the Senior Film Critic for the magazine.