I finally watched The Sacrament after watching Ti West’s featurette on the Criterion House release, where he articulately advocated for art-horror films that are “challenging films.” Ti West’s prior films – well, The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, anyway – weren’t for everyone, but they were interesting – and, in my book, quality – horror.
The Sacrament is a long way from challenging, however. Presented as a kind of modern day interpretation of the Jonestown deaths, West approaches the material in a way that is both aesthetically and thematically unoriginal. He adopts the found footage approach wholesale, right down to the inevitable third act where the framing device no longer makes any sense; he brings nothing new to a genre that’s already floundering.
That’s not to say the film is without merit – it is genuinely chilling at times, largely thanks to Gene Jones’ performance as a loose-Jim-Jones-analogue called “Father”. But while I can’t entirely dismiss a film that succeeds in unnerving me, its approach to the subject material is problematic at best. The messy complexities of Jonestown – a communist-leaning “retreat” tacitly supported by the US government – are smoothed over in favour of cult stereotypes and some troubling (if presumably unintentional) racial undertones.