I don’t think I’ve mentioned before how happy I am to see Colin Geddes programming the Vanguard films at TIFF now, too, in addition to his regular Midnight Madness crazy duties. I’ve come to hold Colin’s opinion in high esteem, particularly where the weird and wacky of the fest come into play, so it’s no wonder that this year finds more Vanguard films than usual on my docket, and so far I’ve not been disappointed.
I kept going back and forth on whether or not I wanted to have The Sacrament on my list. I was a big fan in particular of Ti West’s film, The Innkeepers, and I love me some Eli Roth once in awhile (he was a producer on this one, in addition to bringing his own feature to the festival’s Midnight Madness lineup again this year), but I wasn’t sure how this particular film was going to play out. Would it be super fun and gory like we’ve come to expect from Roth? Or creepy and atmospheric like West’s Innkeepers? Eventually, I decided that the cast was too good to pass up (anyone who reads this blog regularly will know how much Amy Seimetz impressed me in this past season of The Killing, for example, and don’t even get me started on how much I frakking LOVED You’re Next), and the story itself seemed pretty compelling, so I decided to give it a go.
Turns out that was the right decision for me, as I enjoyed the film a great deal – in addition to discovering that it’s actually neither gory fun nor creepy atmospheric overall. Instead, The Sacrament is its own brand of horror – not found footage (because, as Geddes pointed out, the footage was never lost), and not a blood-stained, terror-filled, thrill-ride from start to finish. Rather, The Sacrament is a slow-burning, tension-building, character-driven, documentary-styled horror…that is actually kind of heart-achingly sad at some points.
When Patrick (Kentucker Audley) receives a letter from his sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), a recovering addict, inviting him to visit her at the remote commune she joined in an effort to live a cleaner lifestyle, he decides to take his colleagues, Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) along for the ride. Sam and Jake are both Vice correspondents, so the trio of men want to try making a documentary about the commune itself – Eden Parrish – while Patrick checks in to see how his sister is doing.
Once they past the heavily-armed guards at the gate, the guys find that Eden Parrish is guided by the almost mythical hand of the mysterious “Father” (Gene Jones). Everyone they speak to sings his praises time and time again. None of them would be there, if it weren’t for Father. The commune wouldn’t exist were it not for his persistence and devotion. It doesn’t take long for all three men to buy into everything they’re seeing and experiencing – Father has a way with words (even after he enters every room to rock-star-status greetings), and everyone they meet seems happy and content. There are no arguments, everyone is fed, clothed, has a place to sleep, and a purpose to fulfill in keeping Eden running. They’ve built everything themselves, live off the land, and create their own familial bonds with one another.
It truly does seem that Father and his followers have created a version of Heaven on Earth.
What could go wrong?
The film draws heavily from Jonestown in particular, but tries to look at the psychological aspects and horror of the event from the inside, rather than sitting in judgement on the outside the entire time. When Father asks Sam what’s wrong with wanting to live in peace, away from the troubles and technology of the outside world, Sam doesn’t have an easy answer. In fact, no one can really pinpoint one solid reason to suggest why Eden Parrish isn’t the ideal set-up, and coming up with reasons why anyone would want to leave at all becomes increasingly difficult. Even as a viewer suspecting that everything is about to go straight to hell, it was interesting to sit and watch uncomfortably from inside my own head as events happened in front of me, and wonder how I would have coped in a similar situation. By the time cups of Kool-aid were being passed around, I had to ask myself: If the life you’ve built for yourself and your family is suddenly taken away from you, and you’re left with nothing but the spark of life itself – if you’ve lost literally everything, what is left for you to live for? Is a perfect life – however short-lived – worth dying for?
The Sacrament is screening as part of the Toronto International Film Festival on Tuesday September 10th at 9:45 PM and Friday September 13th at 8:45 PM