The Sacrament

Year: 2013
Production Co: Worldview Entertainment
Director: Ti West
Producer: Eli Roth
Writer: Ti West
Cast: Aj Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Kentucker Audley, Amy Seimetz, Gene Jones

It's the Jonestown Massacre found footage horror in all but name, and how much you get out of the actual story (as opposed to the filmmaking) will depend on how much you know about that true life 1978 case. I kept wondering if it was going to do or say something different from what actually happened, but instead it took the Titanic route, telling the real story and ascribing the humanity to it through fictional characters.

It's set in the present day with VICE reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) talking direct to camera about how a fashion photographer colleague, Patrick (Kentucker Audley) has contacted him to document what might be an unusual story. After becoming a drug addict, falling in with a religious group and then disappearing for years, Patrick's sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) has finally got back in touch.

She's moved to what you can only assume is remote South America (never confirmed or named, but because that's where Jonestown was) to a commune where she's put her life back together, found meaning in her new community and the Lord, and speaks in rapturous tones about Eden Parish, a place where she's really – to coin a slightly tasteless but completely appropriate phrase – drunk the Kool aid.

Patrick wants to see her and find out what Eden Parish is all about, inviting Sam to take a cameraman, Jake (mumblecore maestro Joe Swanberg) along to document what might turn out to be a dangerous cult.

Things seem dark when they arrive after their travels and find their path barred by menacing African dudes with automatic weapons, but once they talk their way past Caroline is all rainbows and sunshine, loving that Patrick is here, welcoming the whole gang and offering to show them around.

As Sam and Jake wander around, chatting to people in a setting so evocative of Jonestown it looks like director Ti West had the original plans, there's a very well managed tone of everything being above board and everyone having found their spiritual home, only a few errant phrases, gestures or sights hinting that it might not be quite the paradise all the smiling faces are promising.

At a grand party under an open-air pavilion (if you've ever looked at photos of the aftermath of the mass poisoning online, it will give you a frisson of unease), they meet The Father (Gene Jones), a pasty but charismatic old white man with dark glasses and bloodhound jowls whose old boy Southern voice they've been hearing extoling the virtues of prayer, work and community over the loudspeakers dotted around the township.

He agrees to an interview with Sam that's completely innocuous and warm in content while extremely creepy and slimy in tone, and the party's on.

Somewhere along the way, courtesy of a young mute girl who lives in Eden Parish, Sam and Jake get more of an idea that they're documenting a dangerous cult and a prison, and when events build to The Father assembling everyone back to the pavilion for their ultimate fate, the only surprise is that it all transpires exactly according to what we imagine happened with Jim Jones and his fanatical followers/abductees.

The progression of events is something of a surprise in itself because you've been kind of waiting for it to veer away from historic fact, but writer/director West and his producer Eli Roth undoubtedly knew how scary a representation of the real tragedy would be, and the whole thing assumes an atmosphere of slowly tightening dread, like movies about 9/11 or any other modern tragedy.

The found footage conceit doesn't really add anything apart from putting you on the ground to watch events unfold – a slight irony considering what a gimmick it devolved into in the genre – but while there are no narrative surprises when you're perhaps expecting some, it does what it does very well.

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