There are few greater wastes of a good director’s talents than found-footage. Take Ti West, for example. The young horror maestro made a splash with 2009’s The House Of The Devil, a throwback babysitter-in-peril potboiler that demonstrated not just his knowledge of Reagan-era schlock but also his John Carpenter-like command of space, composition, and timing. (Forget the film’s ’80s-horror affections; its real value lies with those elegant Steadicam shots.) Yet for reasons that may have more to do with budget constraints than creative incentive, West seems to have been consumed by the booming Blair Witch business. Following on the heels of his dull contribution to the original V/H/S, The Sacrament further confirms that the man’s gifts for virtuosic staging are completely squandered on a genre of deliberate artlessness. Because the film is meant to resemble documentary footage, West is forced to effectively “play dumb,” disguising his craftsmanship behind a lot of intentionally cruddy handheld camerawork. Still, that’d be less of a problem if the material he was gracelessly filming weren’t such run-of-the-mill claptrap.
Presented as a VICE-funded piece of immersion journalism, The Sacrament finds a pair of videographers (AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg) accompanying a co-worker (Kentucker Audley) to a remote commune, where the young man’s ex-drug-addict sister (Amy Seimetz) has taken up residence. From the moment the outsiders arrive at the ominously titled Eden Parish, a sprawling rural oasis with armed guards at its gates, it’s clear that there’s something amiss about this spiritual sanctuary. West’s aesthetic aptitude may be completely obscured by the mock-doc format, but his knack for slow burns remains intact: The early scenes possess a certain nagging creepiness, especially once character actor Gene Jones shows up as the commune’s loquacious, congenial “Father”—a Southern gentleman who delivers passive-aggressive threats through a smile and with a silver tongue. As The House Of The Devil previously demonstrated, West knows how to spook viewers with little more than the vague suggestion of malicious motives, especially when that vibe is being put out by an outwardly amiable fellow.
Yet there’s a downside to the director’s strategy of tension and release, and it’s that the payoff never lives up to the immaculate build. That’s especially true in the case of The Sacrament, which goes exactly where it appears to be going the entire time, with no surprises or wrinkles in en route to the expected destination. Worse still, its violent third act also plays like a cheap recreation of a particularly well-publicized, real-life tragedy, as though West had read some old magazine article and thought, “This would make a cool horror film.” (One should never expect tastefulness from a film “produced by Eli Roth.”) And while Devil and the director’s The Innkeepers both got by on their visual pleasures, even when their plots fell apart, The Sacrament can’t even make its gimmick feel plausible. If what we’re watching is supposed to be an official, ready-to-air VICE segment, complete with an intro and title cards, why does it also appear to be unedited raw footage of the trip? Such sloppiness reveals what an ill fit West is for found-footage. He should leave the amateur moves to the amateurs.