The Sacrament

by The Acolyte/Blaise Bienvenue

The Sacrament professes to consist of documentary footage of the last 24 hours in the lives of the members of a religious cult. The cult and its compound, though placed in the present day, are obviously based on events taking place in November 1978 in the Carribean country of Guyana, where Jim Jones convinced some 900 people to drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid before shooting himself in the head. Jones had moved his progressive congregation from locations in the US to an agricultural compound in the South American jungle, where members and their children were subjected to Spartan conditions, sleep-depriving labor, attempted mind control, and multiple forms of abuse. Though Jones may have started out with the right idea, he had long since succumbed to paranoia, adulterous self-indulgence, and an apparent lust for power. Since he was living in the same jungle compound as his followers under only slightly better conditions at the time of his death, the exact nature of his motives will likely remain a mystery.

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The Sacrament tells the story of a film crew employed by a multi-media news outlet and led by a man whose sister has abandoned her life to live in Eden Parish, the fictional compound portrayed in the film. Early shots of the crew’s helicopter flight into the jungle bring to mind the establishing shots of Ruggero Deodato’s seminal found footage film Cannibal Holocaust. Though The Sacrament does not deliver the life-altering trauma of that film, it does an excellent job of recreating many of the elements that were present in the real-life Jonestown, from structures and layout to ethnic proportions to the saccharine veneer that was presented to outsiders. Though the population of Eden Parish is about one-fifth the size of that of Jonestown, the footage in The Sacrament looks and feels so much like the real thing (of which footage exists and is readily available) that one often forgets one is watching a horror film.

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Though all the performances in the film are good, actor Gene Jones is the standout as the Jim Jones-inspired Father, who comes across as equal parts doppelganger and personal creation, though a hundred percent organic. The ominous undertones of his paternal cordiality are palpable. His reading of what amounts to the real-life “death tape” is chilling in its similarity to the tone and timbre of Jim Jones’s final admonishments to his followers.

Though the counterpart sequence in Mexican exploitation director Rene Cardona, Jr’s 1979 Guyana: Cult of the Damned is somewhat more intense, that film overall is hollow and artless. The Sacrament, as a whole, is a much better movie,  a total immersion in the realities of its subject. Characters are real enough to generate emotion. Writer/director Ti West’s knowledge of the world he wants to create seems so thorough and complete that the viewer only gets exactly what is needed, and that in completely unobtrusive fashion. He trusts our imagination and knows how to manipulate it.

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Composer Tyler Bates’s signature atonal crescendos are perfect here, never encroaching upon the naturalistic tone with conventional melody. The score remains largely at the edges of our awareness, inducing constant tension, creeping into consciousness only at key moments.

Painfully deliberate attention is paid to what would be the placement of real-life cameras, following the rule inherent to found footage; this goes out the window during the film’s final act, at which point emotions run high enough that the discrepancy in technique is outweighed by the drama. Though the climax to this film is a foregone conclusion, details are added that will shock the viewer and linger in the mind. My overall take-away from The Sacrament is of a highly effective piece of unsentimental horror, extreme enough for genre fans, dramatic enough for tourists, true enough to the mental and emotional realities of the real-life events for those with some knowledge. I plan to watch this film again, and to take in more of the director’s work.

– The Acolyte