I didn’t have an opportunity to see Ti West’s (The House of the Devil) film “The Sacrament” when it was in the theaters this past May. While searching through the new release section on Netflix the other day, I saw that it was listed, so I added it to my queue and watched it later that evening. Written and directed by West, the film had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival on September 2, 2013. The movie, which has a ninety-five minute runtime, is a combination of the genres of horror and thriller. The story is set in the present day. I was glad that West decided not to make the movie a ‘found footage’ style film. While I certainly think he is a capable enough director to have pulled it off, I think it would have turned out to be more of a hindrance than a help, and I am not sure if certain scenes could have been as effective.
Vice is a New York City Multimedia Company, headquartered in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that focuses on covering international news, arts and culture. Broadcast in over thirty-four countries, Vice covers controversial and provocative stories that are largely ignored or given minimal air-time by the established main stream media outlets. The name that Vice gives to their particular brand of journalism is called immersionism.
The film begins with AJ Bowen’s (A Horrible Way to Die) character, Sam Turner, who is sitting at Vice headquarters with a person he dubs as ‘one of the company’s favorite freelance fashion photographers,’ Patrick Carter (Kentucker Audley). Patrick has relayed a story about his sister, Caroline, portrayed by Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color), who has been struggling for years with drug addiction. His sister, in an effort to get herself clean, had left New York City to join a sober living community in rural Mississippi. Patrick begins to grow concerned about Caroline’s well being, after he receives a mysterious letter from her in the mail. No return address is on the envelope, nor does she provide one in her correspondence; there is, however, a phone number included at the bottom of the letter for him to call. After calling the number, he speaks to a man who can only inform him that his sister, along with the rest of the community, has moved out of the country, to an undisclosed location. If he wishes to see her, he will be given instructions as to what country to fly to, and once there, he will be flown by helicopter to a remote location that must remain secret. Sensing the potential for an interesting story, Sam and videographer, Jake, played by Joe Swanberg (You’re Next), accompany Patrick on his trip to visit the commune Caroline is living at, which is called Eden’s Parish.
Once the trio arrives in the foreign country, they are taken by helicopter to a place that is seemingly in the middle of nowhere. They are greeted by several gun toting men that work for the parish. They are immediately told by the men to stop filming. Arrangements had only been made for Patrick to come visit Caroline, not for Sam and Jake to travel with him. The men will not let the trio continue, until they receive radio confirmation from the commune that it is okay that Sam and Jake come along. Once permission is granted, the three men are told to get on to the back of a flatbed truck. The truck will take them the rest of the way to Eden’s Parish, which only has one road leading in and out of its grounds. (As an aside: The movie, while it was made to look as if it were filmed in another country, was actually shot on a ranch in Savannah, Georgia).
Caroline is very excited to see her brother. She informs Sam and Jake without any prompting, that she and her brother, grew up wealthy on the upper west side of New York, and that she doesn’t consider that living. The work she is doing at Eden’s Parish, she feels, is real living and is a place that she labels ‘heaven on Earth.’ When asked any questions, she answers in a positive, reaffirming tone of voice, regarding anything that is taking place at the Parish, which make it obvious to the viewer, that she is a staunch advocate for both Eden’s Parish, and its yet to be seen on screen, leader, known as Father. His voice is briefly heard over the loud speakers, set up throughout the commune, when the men first enter. He is asking his flock to welcome their guests. The guys from Vice, of course, want to interview Father. Caroline thinks that it should be okay, but she will have to ask him first. In the meantime, she tells Patrick’s Vice team members, that she would like to spend some time alone with her brother, whom she has missed dearly.
Eden’s Parish is comprised of a racially diverse group of people. The total number of members that make up the commune, consists of 167 individuals: seven are infants; thirty-five are children; and there are approximately sixty senior citizens among their numbers, according to Wendy (Donna Biscoe), who runs the medical center at the Parish. Every one who Sam interviews, speaks glowingly about not only life at the Parish, but about Father, who is their proverbial sun, moon, and stars. Watching the film, however, I got the sense that West was winking at the viewer, asking the person watching: Do you really think there could be a place that exists in this world where everyone lives harmoniously without any sort of basic human emotion causing the slightest of problems? I also got a sense, after Sam talks to a woman named Lorraine (Shirley Jones Byrd), who everyone calls Ms. D, that a great many of the people who are at Eden’s Parish came there out of a sense of desperation. There was nowhere, or no one, left for many of the people, to turn to. Father, even though it is learned, has taken all of the commune members’ money from the sale of their homes, as well as every material possession the members owned, except for the clothes on their backs, is looked at as God’s emissary on Earth, who can do no wrong. Not everyone there, is lonely and seemingly desperate. For instance, one young woman (Kate Lyn Sheil), who Sam briefly interviews, comes from Melbourne, Australia. When asked by him if she misses her family in Australia, and would ever want to go see them again? She respond in the negative and states, in effect, that the commune is the best family she has ever had.
Father, whose real name is Charles Anderson Reed, is portrayed by Gene Jones (Oz The Great and Powerful). He gives a very convincing performance; every facial expression, as well as the way he delivers his dialogue, is nuanced perfectly by the actor. He comes across, at first, as a man who has a disarming demeanor about him. Once again, however, the manner in which West films the character of Father, gives the viewer a sense that the man is not someone to be trifled with or disobeyed.
The name Father, which Sam inquires about, is a nickname that was given to him, at some point, so long ago, he can’t now recall. When asked where he was born, the bible quoting Father doesn’t answer the question. Instead he goes into a monologue, that sounds like words he has spoken hundreds of times over the years. He talks about his impoverished upbringing, and how, because of his economic class, he always felt he was treated as an outcast. He lets the three men from Vice know that he has travelled to every big city and no name town with sparse populations. He claims, that no matter where he has gone, he always witnessed people living in poverty, acts of violence being committed, and the ugliness of racism. He makes special mention of historical figures, for example, Martin Luther King, who he points out, tried to make the world a peaceful place to live in, but were assassinated for their efforts. He will give people who want to make something of their lives, a chance to come and live at Eden’s Parish. He will give each of them a job, a place to live, a bed to sleep in at night, and they will never go hungry.
Is there more to this kindly, older gentleman than meets the eye, as the guys from Vice suspect? Are the members of the commune all as taken as they appear to be with how they are living and what they were promised? Do people secretly have a desire to leave Eden’s Parish because it is not the social utopia that it was touted it would be? Can people leave if they want to? Will Father allow members of his flock safe passage from his gun toting bodyguards to do so? All of those questions and more will be answered at the conclusion of the film.
WARNING: SPOILERS CONTAINED FROM THIS POINT FORWARD:
Unlike, the vast majority of films people watch in the horror genre, those who visually devour them on a steady basis and crave the carnage candy, you might find this particular film, very unsettling. I know I did. The reason being, while the film is not a direct parallel of what transpired at Jonestown in 1978, because those events culminated at the end of a twenty year period, the gut wrenching ending is a hard thing to sit through. This is, unfortunately, not some made up horror screenplay, that some creative writer came up with, but is taken from the actual pages of a sad, sick history of true events. The imagery involves the killing of children and old people. One particular scene shows a mother willingly holding her infant, as the baby is injected with what’s known in the popular vernacular as “cool aid,” but should be more appropriately called “suicide juice.” Without getting into exact detail, the final scene between Patrick and Caroline was particularly upsetting for me to watch, and horror movies usually don’t evoke those kinds of emotions in me.
In the aftermath of the film, on screen is written the fact that 167 people, needlessly perished at Eden’s Parish. An astounding majority quite willingly did so, at the behest of their beloved leader, who turned out to be nothing but a fraud, when it was all said and done. I will quote words that West used in an interview to describe the feeling he was going for with the ending of the film: “Even for people who are gore hounds, that scene just makes people uncomfortable. And that was a big point in the movie was to remind you that real violence, there’s accountability with that and that it’s actually scary.”
Overall, West uses atmosphere and sound to great effect. In terms of the characters he created, the performances from everyone involved in the cast, whether they were a main character, or had a word or two of dialogue, was uniformly excellent. The dialogue was well written. I couldn’t detect one false note in anything that was spoken. It sounded like I expected people in a situation like that, with a leader, who has a gift of gab, combined with a knowledge of scripture, to sound like. The guys from Vice are also no exception. They asked the type of questions, and investigated in the manner in which I could clearly see people from news shows of that ilk doing. In what seems to be the director’s typical fashion, in his horror films, he methodically builds a great amount of dread and tension before the point of impact, and in this film, his style, which has served him well, is no different.