Far more on the thriller side of things, The Sacrament actually possesses two concurrent concepts of interest, but fails to satisfactorily capitalize on either of them. An almost verbatim presentation of the Jonestown Massacre narrative, The Sacrament tells the story of three VICE reporters, Patrick, Sam, and Jake, who venture out to the isolated Eden Parish, a utopian community headed by the religious leader affectionately referred to as Father. Acting upon a letter from Patrick’s sister, Caroline, a recovering addict currently stationed at Eden Parish, the trio pester Father for an interview that goes less than swimmingly, starting off a chain reaction that quickly exposes that things aren’t as peachy-keen in Eden Parish as they initially seem.
The Sacrament possesses an undeniable sense of maturity and poise for a “horror” film. The lackluster dialogue the genre is infamous for is nowhere to be found, and lengthy scenes of banter and debate are allowed to linger on, contributing to a sense of verisimilitude whilst simultaneously encouraging the audience to take the events that are transpiring more seriously. Since it’s grouped in with its like-minded genre peers, the carefully developed characters and patient slow burn of the narrative are a breath of fresh air when considered alongside many of the film’s half-baked contemporaries. However, what The Sacrament fails to ever achieve is a sense of terror or fear, rendering its fundamental obligation as a horror film entirely impotent. There are certainly uneasy moments, but nothing is ever surprising considering how unapologetically Ti West insists on regurgitating familiar Jonestown imagery. Sure, it’s disturbing to see the residents of Eden Parish screaming and foaming at the mouth as their poison Kool Aid takes effect, but anyone even tangentially aware of popular culture will have expected this scene as soon as they heard the words “isolated religious community.” Everything presented within the film is what we know about Jonestown, from the way the living quarters are structured, to the drive through the jungle in order to reach a handwritten sign, to Father communicating with his flock over loudspeakers, to the very plot point of referring to Father as Father. As such, nothing is shocking, or even particularly creative. However, what the film does succeed in is heavily piquing my interest in a Jonestown narrative given the proper amount of Hollywood elbow grease, so at the very least, The Sacrament makes a solid case for its concept as an engaging one.
Furthermore, The Sacrament perhaps unknowingly hits upon social commentary with its use of VICE as a template for its protagonists to keep going. Considering the current state of sensationalist journalism, there’s a morally ambiguous message present of whether the actions of the reporters are motivated by their own personal conceptions of professional integrity, or a burning desire to titillate the audience back home and rake in more views. It would have been somewhat more powerful if it had been firmly established that the tapes made it onto a major news network and reached a widespread audience, but the decision to have two horror protagonists survive is unique enough that this can be forgiven. Nevertheless, more internal quandaries about the ethics of journalism would have added a lofty intellectual layer to the film.
There are a handful of genuinely disturbing images, especially those related to the residents of Eden Parish that elect to kill themselves by means other than suicide, but the glacially paced doses of unease are not enough to render this an enjoyable horror experience at the end of the day. While I can appreciate the time and care taken to portray the characters, especially Father, it’s well into the 50-minute range before our hackles get raised, and the scant returns are sure to displease many blood-thirsty horror consumers. Not scary enough to be a horror film and not possessing the gravitas of a full-fledged drama, The Sacrament is strong in theme but weak in content.
Though mature and restrained, The Sacrament regularly forgets to scare its viewers over the course of its extreme slow burn.