[6 June 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
We all remember the shocking photos, bodies bloating in the hot African sun, lost lives staggered like rails in a forgotten lumber yard. Next to them lay Dixie Cups of death, a Kool-aid (or Flavor-Aid, actually) potion poisoned to prevent the real world from learning the truth about its cloistered cult beliefs. It was here in Northern Guyana were the Reverend Jim Jones, an expatriate preacher from San Francisco who decided to move his impressionable parish lock, stock, and secretive barrels halfway across the globe in order to find peace and tranquility.
But when Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in November of 1978 to gather information as part of a fact finding tour, he was initially met with open arms. Later, Jones’ guards would open fire, killing the House member along with four others. When outsiders finally stormed the compound, they found the corpses of 909 church members. Jones was dead as well, an allegedly self-inflicted bullet wound to the head.
The cult had ended. The dream was over.
Before the Branch Davidians and the comet-ccentric Heaven’s Gate members, the deaths associated with Jones’ Peoples Temple remain some of the most vivid in the memories of those suggestible enough to remember the impact of those horrific media images. Now up and coming horror director Ti West (House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) has decided to update the events that occurred nearly 36 years ago, fictionalizing them for a film entitled The Sacrament.
While it mimics elements of the story we are familiar with (or, at least, most in my generation remember), this will be new for an entire demo whose parents were just infants when Jones rose to prominence. If you can get past the recognizablility, and the lingering shadow of the sensational mini-series from 1980 - Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones starring a young Powers Boothe - you’ll truly enjoy West’s tightly wound work of suspense.
Using Vice and its nu-journalism style (referenced in opening title cards as “immersionist”)as his contemporary jumping off point, West weaves a tale of three outsiders: reporter Sam (A.J. Bowen), his cameraman cohort Jake (Joe Swanberg) and a fashion photographer friend (Kentucker Audley) who is worried about his drug addict sister (Amy Seimetz).
After a stint in rehab, she’s left America and headed off to a “commune.” An alarming letter arrives, confirming her intentions never to return, so our trio heads off to find her. They end up in a place called Eden Parish, where everyone works toward the collective good and for the favor of the genial leader, a domineering man they call “Father” (Gene Jones). Over the PA system and in nightly communal meetings, he extols the virtues of their faith based life. Sam and Jake soon discover a darker side to the place, putting themselves and everyone else in danger in the process.
For someone my age, The Sacrament takes a while to come together. The memories of Jonestown, the various news reports and specials, the taped audio records and docudrama recreations, are still so much a part of the Me Decade’s make-up that, when West more or less appropriates all of it for his own horror devices, we balk. We begin distancing ourselves as narrative threads fail to add up and introduced elements go unexplored.
In fact, the entire first half of the film feels frivolous and unimportant - that is, until Gene Jones shows up. Like an older, angrier, and far more insane version of John Goodman, the actor more or less turns the memory of charlatans like Jones into a work of performance art. Tongue darting in and out of his mouth, eyes hidden behind malevolent aviator sunglasses, his every move is a hint, his every word a rationale for the tragedy that’s about to happen.
It is during this decisive speech where The Sacrament shifts from copycat to complement. Indeed, what we witness is the kind of clever insights that usually disappear whence the menace in a fright flick materializes. Even during the open sequences with Seimetz all sunshine and optimism, we aren’t quite sure when the worm will turn here. Even the appearance of an abused little mute girl doesn’t deter us from the inevitable. But once Jones (how ironic) starts speaking, once his mannerisms and thoughts insinuate impending death, we get lost. We suddenly stop thinking about the events of 1978 and worry about what will happen here.
Father’s concerns are rational, not the ravings of a lunatic. He believes in his paradise and outsiders’ ability to destroy it. An interview with Vice just confirms his worst fears.
The next day, we come face to face with the horrors of mass suicide, and it is here where West also excels. After giving us reason for the found footage approach (anyone whose watched the magazine’s 60 Minutes like show on HBO recognizes the filming style almost immediately), we witness as people passively drink the Kool-Aid, the symbolism of death by such craven communion making the action all the more awful. Some have doubt, but Father eases their concerns.
Those who don’t want to follow, however, are gunned down in a manner ‘80s TV was hard pressed to showcase. During this time, as fearful faces turn slowly lifeless, West works his particular brand of movie magic. This isn’t a Hellsapoppin’ splatterfest like the Evil Dead remake. By grounding the actions of the cult in recognizable reality, The Sacrament finally overcomes the shadows of the past.
And this doesn’t even begin to address the subtle subtext applied, one which sees many people of color being exploited and victimized by the white plantation owner like persona of Jones’ Father. There’s even a slight hint of a Southern accent in the character’s delivery and West spends a lot of time on non-Caucasian faces. It could just be coincidence, but it sure feels like something done on purpose.
Granted, after Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto created the ultimate cult nightmare for the V/H/S 2 segment “Safe Haven,” anything not as brazen and bloody would seem tame by comparison. However, thanks to his abilities behind the lens and the story he chooses to borrow before it, Ti West’s The Sacrament ends up a solid, satisfying experience.