By Michael Koresky
Dir. Ti West, U.S., Magnet Releasing
Ti West’s previous two films, The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, brought back to independent American horror a tactile beauty and technical grace, the likes of which we hadn’t seen in quite some time. Though punctuated with (mostly climactic) bursts of gore, these films were essentially whispery, slow-burning works of terror, building ever so gradually in force. The viewer never knew where the threat was coming from, even though it lingered in the air all around the main characters. Whether we felt walloped or let down by their emotional catharses, these films always made us aware of their structure and cinematic being. In The House of the Devil—an impeccably mounted eighties throwback that transcends its own inherent nostalgia by making its period markers uncanny rather than cool—a babysitter is left alone at a creepy Victorian house in the middle of nowhere during a full lunar eclipse. Will the danger come from outside the house or within—perhaps that locked door upstairs where her unseen charge (not a child, but an old woman) sleeps? In The Innkeepers, set at a purportedly haunted New England hotel, two clerks, who moonlight as half-serious amateur ghostbusters, try to ride out the last weekend before the establishment shutters its doors forever. Will ghosts strike from the attic, the basement, or from one of those of odd guests who keep trickling in? The pleasure was in slowly finding out where and what the terror was. In both cases, when it arrived, it felt natural, classical, and neither film seemed to want to be more than a shivery scary story to read under the covers with a flashlight.
The style is radically different, but at least for the first half of West’s latest, The Sacrament, the horror is similarly free-floating. Obviously something is wrong right off the bat: Patrick (Kentucker Audley) and two other Williamsburgers, Sam and Jake (AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg), have flown to an unrevealed rural location where Patrick’s sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), has fallen in with a local cult, Eden Parish; they plan to record their experience tracking her down for VICE magazine. (“We don’t spin things. We try to document things that are meaningful,” says Sam at one point about the magazine he works for, and it’s unclear if the film is being satirical.) This conceptual framework— “immersion” video journalism—means that West can indulge in the fast, cheap, and quite played-out first-person video aesthetics that have created a horror subgenre unto itself, including the Paranormal Activity and [REC] films, Cloverfield, and those V/H/S omni-busts, all of which owe more than a little to the legacy of the analogue-era The Blair Witch Project. At first, the gambit seems to work well enough, and at least the preponderance of cuts, reverse shots, and B-roll cutaways (of goats, empty swing sets, and streams of sunlight) have a narrative rationale—rather than a compendium of scrappily pieced together found footage, the film seems to be an edited documentary of their trip. That said, the same logic gap that has plagued most of these films (that their characters never put their cameras down even at the most agonized, dangerous of moments) is here far too wide to skip across. What’s worse is that this is not The Sacrament’s most glaring problem. Once we discover the crux of the film—what the central threat of Eden Parish is—it’s revealed that West has traded his refreshing classicism for the tastelessness and slapdash technique that defines our contemporary horror moment.
Not the “hippie commune” the characters claim to have been expecting, Eden Parish is instead West’s twenty-first century Jonestown. At that Guyana mass murder site in 1978, more than nine-hundred members of the Peoples Temple, an American cult that originated in Indiana, died from self-ingested cyanide poisoning. West mines this material for The Sacrament, in which a group of the disillusioned and naïve have congregated in order to get away from the violence, rampant licentiousness, and technological overload of contemporary living, not unlike those lying elders of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. Of course, their imagined utopia is anything but, which we begin to realize when we meet the camp’s leader, the avuncular yet clearly maniacal “Father” (Gene Jones, spectacular in his grandstanding showmanship and expressive in his chin waddle). No benevolent patriarch, Father—first introduced in rock-star sunglasses during a late-night tent revival—rails against the poverty, killing, greed, and racism of present-day America, but his message of pacifism seems at odds with the machine guns that line the camp’s perimeters, keeping his flock inside. During an interview with Bowen’s investigator, which is set up as a stage performance, Father claims himself and his followers to be anti-capitalists, but certainly not socialists. As it turns out, the members, mostly wayward drug addicts and alcoholics (many of them African-Americans, though the film leaves these characters as little more than faces in the crowd) sold their homes and donated the profits to the Parish, leaving them few other options than to stay. The folks seem generally happy, and our visiting hipster protagonists positively love the gospel music, so no one kicks up much of a fuss. Yet there’s discontent here, which becomes especially clear when Savannah, a creepy little Caucasian with long, blonde hair perpetually covering her eyes, shows up at our baffled heroes’ cabin door in the middle of the night and hands them a note reading, “Please help us.”
There’s no question that in the wildly unpleasant final act West is shamelessly exploiting and cheaply aestheticizing true-life tragedy. But perhaps his even greater sin is that he uses trendy horror conventions to do so. As the film clunks along to its climax, featuring an endless array of suicides by gunshot, throat-slitting, fire, and, of course, Kool-Aid, the film devolves into nonsense, our bumbling Brooklynites darting about the camp trying to save themselves and others from the carnage—and of course, always wielding the camera, even when in imminent mortal danger. True horror can only function when predicated on some form of behavioral human logic, and the characters’ determination to record every tragic image—while babbling inanities behind the camera like “Oh fuck!” and “What happened here?!”—dashes the film’s hopes for any sort of relatability. In order to justify his recording of gruesome suicides, Swanberg’s character actually at one point says out loud, “Whatever happens, the story needs to be told,” an insult to the audience on the director’s part in its attempt to overlay importance on a crass product.
Like an extended version of one of those in-every-way impoverished “found-footage” shorts from the V/H/S films, The Sacrament is a technical disaster, and worse, an artistic dead-end, as there’s no philosophical dimension or even moral outrage to its anti-craftsmanship. But it raises a larger question about contemporary, “first-person” horror, which seems to trade on the idea that intimacy with the camera engenders in the audience some kind of empathy with those onscreen. Years after the chilling and ultimately quite humane Blair Witch cast its spell over millions of moviegoers (antagonizing many in the process with its affecting lack of resolution), such empathy has become secondary to simplistic sensationalism. In these horror films, the audience is forced to take on the perspective of an amateur filmmaker’s camera and the resultant visual mediation has no greater effect than limiting our vision. We can only see what the character wielding the recording device sees through the viewfinder. This might make sociocultural sense in an age when anyone with a phone can be a filmmaker, but it also serves to make our ever-expanding world seem terribly tiny. And when this visual device is used to depict a true-life tragedy, as in The Sacrament, the blinkered entitlement of those wielding the camera, the smallness, becomes all the more glaring.
Our obsessive need to record ourselves is reaching a numbing crisis point; true filmmakers can and should avoid falling into such aesthetic traps. Employing the more classically placed, omniscient camera as seen in the director’s earlier films may not have justified The Sacrament’s fatuous premise, but perhaps in that case the Jonestown massacre would not have been a backdrop for what amounts to a study in millennial narcissism.