“The House of the Devil” and “The Innkeepers” established Ti West as an old soul on the horror scene: a 1970s-schooled classicist pursuing a tidier brand of terror than the excessive blood bonanzas of contempo genre king Eli Roth. So it’s a surprise to see West following the ubiquitous trend for found-footage storytelling — with Roth as producer, to boot — for his largely terrific sixth feature, “The Sacrament.” Less expected still, it’s a film that purists might insist isn’t horror in the strictest sense, though this slow-burning investigation of unseemly goings-on at a rural Christian commune is frightening in any genre language. Dark-side distribs should be duly hypnotized by the pic, disparate elements of which make it marketable to the Roth faithful and discerning independent audiences alike.
“The Sacrament” isn’t the first project to link West with Roth, albeit indirectly and unhappily: In 2009, West directed “Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever,” a disconnected sequel to Roth’s grisly 2002 hit that the helmer disowned after studio intervention. Four years on, West’s auteur standing is unopposed on a risky venture that only sporadically conforms to the structural and tonal conventions of horror — and uses that inconsistency as a means of maintaining uncertainty in a scenario that will feel quite familiar to anyone who recalls the Jonestown Massacre of 1978.
That may seem a spoiler of sorts, but surely only very young viewers could fail to spot the parallels from the off — even if, as is de rigueur with found-footage films, “The Sacrament” makes a solemn show of passing itself off as a modern-day true story. As we touch down in a remote tropical location — the country is unidentified, but it may as well be Guyana — and travel to Eden Parish, a hand-built agricultural community run on socialist principles that the film never for a second pretends are honorable, the question is chiefly whether we’re watching a restaging or a subversion of the Jonestown events. It’s one that West keeps in play impressively far into the film.
Our outsider perspective is shared by the three affable young men — reporter Sam (AJ Bowen), cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) and photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) — who arrive at the Parish with the intention of doing an expose for Vice, the irony-fueled hipster media brand that also has a hand in this film’s production. Patrick’s reasons for going are twofold: He’s driven chiefly by concern for his sister Caroline (an excellent Amy Seimetz, who recently directed Audley in “Sun Don’t Shine”), a sweetly suggestible, substance-prone type who has effectively fallen off the grid since joining her new “family” at the Parish. When Caroline greets them at the gates, her defensively sunny demeanor waves an immediate red flag for Sam and Jake, as does the swiftness with which Patrick is separated from them.
The visitors are informed that media intrusion is not welcomed by the Parish leader, known only as Father, a man whose cult-harvesting charisma is evident long before he first appears onscreen. That would be at the “interview” he eventually grants Sam — with the catch that it can only take place before his gathered followers, where every one of the journalist’s suspicious lines of inquiry can be theatrically shut down, earning him the hostility of hundreds.
Though essentially a non-violent conversation between two seated men, this sustained sequence may well be the film’s most unnerving — thanks in largely part to the mesmerizing, subtly off-kilter performance by Gene Jones as Father. An overweight, sallow-skinned Southerner with a confident, oleaginous delivery, he speaks like a leader more than he looks like one, but he’s not smooth enough to deflect a seemingly terrorized undercurrent that runs throughout the Parish. West could have teased out this suggestion of disquiet a little longer before heading full-tilt into its violent manifestation. Still, the fallout is staged with a vivid, panicked brutality that sustains the scare factor even as we lose the uncanniness, raising and simplifying the stakes to life-or-death levels.
As is usually the case, the found-footage conceit falls apart a little at this point — there are too many sources of tension for one camera to handle, even if Jake remains unfeasibly committed to his equipment throughout — though it makes for at least one clever bit of perspective-related wrongfooting in the final stages. The docu-realism works effectively in the film’s first half, however, particularly as the journos establish the interesting social makeup of the group. In plausible contrast to the cosseted white ensembles of many a cult-centered film, it’s clear that Father has preyed on a more diverse range of disenfranchised folk.
The film’s intelligence extends to its strong but suitably modest tech package, with the narrative involvement of Vice providing an alibi for Eric Robbins’ fluid, generously lit lensing; most films in the found-footage genre have no reason to look this good. Jade Healy’s production design is a particular asset, visually conveying the camp’s spartan, faux-organic principles with absolute authenticity. Sound design, as ever with the helmer’s work, is tack-sharp, as is Tyler Bates’ spooky score — even if it occasionally seems to have crept in from one of West’s more retro efforts.