If Ti West’s horror films have a unifying element so far, it’s the way they take horrific cultural touchstones from the past – incidents and phobias that became ingrained in the public imagination and continue to have lives past their historical moment – and re-instigate their ability to make us feel bad. He designed a vivid mid-80s night of Satanic panic in 2009’s frightening House of The Devil, then downshifted to merely weird and unsettling in 2011’s low-key shrug of a haunted house film, The Innkeepers. With The Sacrament, he takes the retro anxiety of 1978’s Jonestown Massacre and slaps on a fresh coat of creepiness. Not that it needed much.
A rehab-turned-cult, Eden Parish (pun clearly intended) has its hooks in trust fund junkie Caroline (Amy Seimetz), sister to Brooklyn fashion photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley). Caroline and the rest of her new “family” have disappeared into a foreign country, but for murky reasons have invited Patrick to come try to find her. This makes it an investigative task for the folks at VICE magazine (AJ Bowen and filmmaker Joe Swanberg -- and if you don’t know what is a VICE magazine then… dude, I don’t know… catch up).
Eden Parish is part love-bombing Moonie enclave, part sustainable hippie commune, a half-measure of Tea Party/NRA wingnut-ism and a dash of generic right-wing Evangelical babble, all dunked in Socialist-leaning progressive politics of race and redistribution of wealth; mixed up doesn’t begin to describe them.
The group's identity remains murky until their corpulent, guayabera-wearing “Father” (Gene Jones) emerges from his hiding place, inspiring mass allegiance and a lot of repetitive chanting, all of which locates the story squarely in the camp of The Peoples Temple. The meddling VICE kids show up, everything goes wrong, the final “sacrament” is invoked and everyone freaks out, the details of which are for viewers to discover themselves.
Formally messy, its documentary camera operator's POV picked up and dropped whenever it suits West (as though he’s daring the audience to revolt against the film before it’s over), The Sacrament isn’t a re-telling of the events at Jonestown, and not even horror in the strictest sense, but it still uses that bizarre story's details and horror movie tricks to communicate skin-crawling dread.
Character actor Jones is the main event here, his malevolent Macon County Line drawl evoking every known drive-in exploitation film featuring a cruel cracker sheriff, and his sexual predator vibe turning the film's final act into something almost orgiastic.
But aside from Jones's frightening star turn, The Sacrament's scares are more existential than anything, based in lingering real-life unhappiness over cultural extremism as it exists now; about paranoid, separatist fringes looming larger than they really are thanks to internet media outlets (VICE allowing itself a bit of self-deprecating parody, perhaps) keeping all of them front and center for the ironic entertainment of a bored, meme-hungry audience; about all the ways everyone drinks the Kool-Aid.