Sometimes we are frankly limited by our terminology. What do you call a film that uses in-world video? That is to say, what do you call a film where the camera used to exclusively record the footage is incorporated as a prop and plot element in the story?
The popular answer is "found footage." But found footage implies that a character in the story lost the footage at some point. The term also carries with it plenty of baggage from the current slew of low budget horror films that have used this as a primary storytelling device. But you also can't call it a documentary, because, well, it's made up. Mock-umentary isn't correct either. Faux doc? Perhaps -- but it's not quite right. You can see the problem here.
The latest film from The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers director Ti West falls smack dab into this category. The entirety of the footage in the film is either shot by characters holding one of two cameras, or it's made to look that way. The good news is that as far as this sub-genre goes, The Sacrament is at the top of the heap. Both interesting and entertaining, West makes the most of the filming device to provide a visceral and enjoyable journey.
The plot device used to explain the documentary footage revolves around a pair of journalists working on a story for real-life arts/culture/news outlet Vice. Reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) and his cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) travel to an unnamed Guyana-like country with photographer pal Patrick (Kentucker Audley) on a mission to track down Patrick's sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz). While they're initially startled by the tight security at Eden Parish, once beyond the gates they find an idyllic community of healthy and happy people living off the grid. All seems well until an eerie mute girl shows up with a frightening plea for help.
The parish is run by an older gentleman who everyone refers to as Father -- a role fully inhabited and knocked out of the park by character actor extraordinaire Gene Jones. His performance perfectly toes the line between opinionated but benevolent preacher and insane religious zealot. With his glasses cutely tipped sideways on his face, it's easy to see him as a man people could follow. But what's really up his sleeve is anyone's guess.
It isn't just Jones who excels. The performances are strong across the board. This has been a hallmark of West's other films and it is no different here. It's also a big part of the reason the film works so well. Often these sorts of films forgo acting for scares; perhaps a hallmark of numerous horror films over the generations. More times than not, if genre acting is as strong as it is in The Sacrament, the film will be one of the more notable titles of the year.
That's not to say that the writing is a weak link. But the story is somewhat limited by both the framing device and the familiarity of the subject. While not based completely on Jim Jones and The People's Temple, the similarities are hard to miss to anyone familiar with the 1978 massacre. This film is as much an exploration of what makes an event like that possible, as it is a straight horror-thriller; a decision that makes for a more interesting foray into the territory.
We can spend plenty of time debating the merits of the use of in-world video. It can often be a tricky device as it runs the risk of taking the audience out of the film as they search for visual clues and anachronisms. What we can't argue is its current popularity. Call it what you like, but The Sacrament does it better than most, and that makes for one exciting ride.
Review originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2013. The film opens in select theaters in the U.S. on Friday, June 6 and is available on VOD now. Visit the official site for more information.