In the real world, there is nothing I find more terrifying than cults. Yes, that includes clowns, British children, and Dick Cheney. The word, “cult,” is such a loaded one, it’s hard to really pin down. While my definition is likely far broader than the generally accepted one, it’s undeniable that the line separating “cult” from “religion” is narrow when you get right down to it. In many cases, cults turn out to be a lot like pornography. You know it when you see it.
There are certain traits that we can all agree squarely belong to the label of cult. So that even if something we thought was a religion starts doing them, we might want to update the nomenclature as it were. Leaving the country to start a rural existence in a war torn part of the world, say. Paranoid ranting about a laundry list of enemies. Drinking Kool-Aid spiked with arsenic. Yeah, pretty much everything Jim Jones did with his Peoples Temple back in the 1970s. While it’s tempting for me to go into the various conspiracy theories surrounding Jones (that he was a CIA plant working to bring about a genocide against black people), I’m going to leave that to my book series. Instead, I want to bring together atheists and evangelicals, Scientologists and Christian Scientists in a common opinion: that shit was a cult, and it is scary as hell.
This is why this week’s Now Fear This, Ti West’s 2013 mockumentary-ish The Sacrament, spoke directly to me. I have not been quiet in my respect for West, featuring him twice before in my tiny corner of the internet. While this is not as good as his masterpiece House of the Devil, it is far more accessible than his perversely-slow The Innkeepers. West shoots this as almost a mockumentary, though later in the narrative, he abandons the conceit a little bit, showing angles and cuts that would have been difficult if not impossible to achieve. By then, it’s almost an afterthought anyway, and the framing device, that this is some Vice reporters who did get a chance to cut their footage, can alleviate some of the largest questions.
West is also smart enough to play with the conceit a bit. In the third act, when the camera man runs from the assault rifle-wielding death squads, he sets the camera up behind a pair of logs. The assumption the audience makes is the one we’re conditioned to in a first person found footage style film: that this is also the location of the character. Nope. He dropped the camera as a distraction and got out of there, which is the one thing people always demand of found footage characters.
Of course, it’s a bit of a journey to death squad territory. It starts out fairly innocuously, though for someone like me, the hair was already going up on the back of my neck. See, Caroline, the sister of fashion photographer Patrick, moved away from civilization to a clean-living kind of place. Turns out, this place then left the country to an unspecified location heavily implied to be some part of Africa, and getting there involves a plane trip and a secret helicopter ride. Yeah, that sounds good.
Two Vice reporters, sensing a story, tag along. It gets weird from the word go. The men who meet the helicopter are extremely squirrelly, and when they get to the actual gate of Eden Parish (through 2km of jungle), the men guarding it are armed with AKs. Getting the Vice guys in is a challenge, and soon Caroline meets them, giving what one correctly identifies as a hard sell of the place. She’s evasive about certain aspects, but in a smooth, practiced politician way. The initial worry calms somewhat when the Vice reporters are allowed to wander around and interview the inhabitants.
Things begin to get weird again with the introduction of Savannah, a mute girl, and her nervous mother. It soon becomes apparent that not everyone is there of their own free will. The cult is treated as a single organism, something that once riled, can rapidly go out of control, though how many are actual loyalists is unclear. It is far more chilling to think that certain devotees are only loyal because everyone around them appears to be. We stay with the reporters as they steadily grow sicker and sicker with worry as they see this community rapidly ready to spin out of control.
At the center of it all is the mysterious Father. He agrees to sit for an interview, but using a magnetic charisma, folksy expressions, a thorough command of the Bible, and just a dash of righteous anger, he thoroughly beguiles the outmatched reporter. He doesn’t answer a single question outright, and expertly puts the interviewer on his heels with a well-timed revelation. After that, it’s a party that once again puts the reporters at ease. You can see them struggling against their innate cynicism and reflexive dislike of a rural life focused on religion. There’s also the element of race: like the real Peoples Temple, the community is predominantly black, led by a charismatic white man. To the film’s credit, it does not shy from the implications of this.
Those who know history know where this is going. The film’s climax begins with that scene, lurching deliriously from one scene of horror to the next, while the reporters desperately try to survive. It’s a slow-motion tragedy that everyone is powerless to stop, as the free will has been methodically stripped away from the faithful. When the Kool-Aid is consumed, that’s when the men with AKs come through to mop up, and in the film’s most stomach turning sequence, there are those who would rather die on their own terms. The stage blood used is a peculiar bright orange, but it matches the drugged Kool-Aid, drawing the perfect visual parallel between them.
The cast is largely a reunion of the superior You’re Next, which West also acted in. AJ Bowen, who played Crispian, is the sympathetic Sam here. Joe Swanberg, who was the perfect douchebag in Drake, shows wider range as the leery but good-hearted Jake. Amy Seimetz, their sister in You’re Next, is Caroline in this one, showing a much darker edge. There’s even an Australian woman for no reason, but it’s not Sharni Vinson. Father is Gene Jones, and not John Goodman in makeup, as the poster led me to believe. He is perfect in his role, just chilling enough to get the point, but never overshadowing the paternal grace that gave him this position.
The Sacrament is a horror movie about the power of belief. The Jim Jones tragedy has largely been forgotten, and though this film isn’t what’s going to start that conversation, it is still an effective use of the imagery we carry in our cultural memory. And like I said, cults are scary.