Its not that The Sacrament is a bad film, but it is bad Ti West. Although it retains the unhurried pace of his earlier efforts, its lacks any sense of what to do with it. West’s most recent two films, the Carter-era Satanic film pastiche The House of the Devil and the lightly mocking ghost story The Innkeepers, reinterpret horror by tying together various strands of film history into ghoulish Frankenstein’s monsters equal parts devilishly, unmercifully Friedkin-esque and expressively Hammerized. His talents are multi-fold: slowly lurching character development, genuine feeling, mesmerizing slow camera movements and perfectly controlled framing, and perverted sound that frays the ears with constancy. He is at his best, as any horror filmmaker is, when he has power, slowly but surely gerrymandering audience expectations and implicating participants in the horror.
The Sacrament ceases all of this control and thoughtful understanding of film history for the over-crowded sloppiness of found footage. Even worse, West almost seems to realize it. While the film approximates the raw quality of found footage, it refuses to go all the way. By placing an experienced professional cameraman in the role of lead character, it passingly legitimizes the fact that West still wants to play around with formal elements and manipulate footage in a way the verite stylings of found footage don’t allow for. The end result is a curious hybrid that unfortunately sacrifices both the pulsing immediacy of found footage and the more carefully expressive qualities afforded to actually setting up a camera in places and deliberating over one’s shots.
West’s story also follows suit, opting for an exploitative but tepid recreation of a fictional variant of the infamous Jonestown massacre, here following a crew of three (AJ Bowen as Sam, a reporter for Vice Magazine, Joe Swanberg as Jake, Sam’s Camerman, and Kentucker Audley as Patrick, a fashion photographer who’s sister lives in the commune). When they arrive at the fictional Utopia of Eden Parish, they encounter Father (the oily, syrupy Gene Jones) who’s avuncular laid-back Southern charm can turn slithering and serpentine in an instant, and things get worse from there. He leads the commune, which as horror film communes are wont to do, hides a dark secret under its ostensibly altruistic exterior.
The whole thing is very old-hat, retracing familiar themes wherein we as everyday American individuals must be frightened of community and where any notion of togetherness innately masks forced submission. What could have saved the film is the actual skill on display to bring this story to life, utilizing West’s not inconsiderable talents to sell us snake oil exactly as Father converts others with his charismatic marketing of an eyebrow raising product on paper. The real problem then is that West actively renounces his genuine craft for lazy filmmaking, relying on druggy acting and hectic camerawork that grows tedious far sooner than the film finishes. While he normally takes a slow and steady path to lull us into tedium as he’s secretly clenching us in his vice grip, here the tedium is genuine and non-utilitarian; it hides nothing, and exists for its own sake. West is a filmmaker to watch, and he does himself a disservice here by hoping aboard the lazy train of modern filmmaking anti-technique in lieu of relying on the past, which is categorically what he does best. The shift leaves the film feeling purposeless and, even worse, pedestrian. If not entirely bad, it is wholly disappointing, which is almost worse.
The first half of Mike Flanagan’s bemusing, jumbled Oculus walks about as far up to the didactic volcano rim as it can without getting burned, and I’m not sure what it says about Flanagan’s film that he unambiguously comes to terms with this and bats a hasty retreat to the more rewarding regions of visual horror. His is a difficult game, spending a turgid amount of film space explicating on the dangers of a mirror that may or may not be haunted. He paddles us so far upriver, keeping things from turning into a harangue only by the sheer force of his actors and the expedient, snappy, no-nonsense way in which he writes his script, and then lets the rivers run wild in the second half. Whether or not you appreciate what the film has to offer depends heavily upon how much you are willing to tolerate a delayed flight to arrive at your chilly, frightening destination.
Flanagan’s story stakes its claim on two siblings, although it does not do so in one time period. His film hinges on an ambitious, somewhat distressing bifurcated time gambit that almost strains under the weight of its double-duty, at once filling the boat with water from dozens of logical leaks (and strained over-written dialogue) and double-timing its speedy efforts to bucket the water back out. We’re introduced to the same pair in two time periods, separated by eleven years. In 2002, twelve year old Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and ten year old Tim (Garrett Ryan) move into a new house with their parents Alan (Rory Cochrane) and Marie (Katee Sackhoff).
Everything seems as dryly workaday as everyday suburbia allows for, until of course we get to know the children’s counterparts in the present. Played by Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites, the now grown siblings are clearly reeling from post traumatic stress disorder, as well as the more worrying sensation that its less “post” and more ongoing. Tim has only recently been released from professional care after an assumed mental breakdown upon apparently killing his father, and Kaylie is little better. She has a plan though, involving returning to the house they left for good years before and uncovering a mirror which Kaylie argues has centuries worth of claims to trapping human souls and turning individuals against themselves. Apparently the mirror, positioned in their father’s office, had driven him to kill their mother, and Tim had ended the situation, or so he thought, bu killing his father in return. Tim is not so sure of his sister’s claims though, and neither are we.
Quite literally the first half of the film proceeds like a breathless rush of dialogue. On paper, its a sleepy behemoth, but its slapped awake well enough by the actors who try their best to staccato the words to get through them quickly and with a sense of pointed hurry. The script by Flanagan and Jeff Howard covers a remarkable amount of material (too much, alas) without ever drying-out, Flanagan’s natural way with people talking over one another to induce excitement ever-basting his long-cooking turkey. Credit to him that Flanagan seems to know exactly where things are about to go off the rails and he capably pulls the film back to the sweet spot where things are not quite smooth sailing but not overly ridden with obstacles either.
When things do get rolling, Flanagan demonstrates a way with visual trickery that titillates and perplexes with peculiar fancy without ever growing tiring or overly academic. His greatest skill is taking such a clinical variation on a subject (whether or not something is truly evil or not) and keeping it suitably visceral and raw. There’s nothing notable about individual visual moments (this isn’t giallo or expressionist horror after all) but he exhibits a clear, quizzical visual style that keeps us on track while throwing us all manner of sideways routes to befuddle our basic senses. He proves particularly adept at genuinely playing with reality, going so far late-on as to run the younger and older sibling variants together in the same environment. It’s a bit too script based, and still a tad too far on the intellectual side for its own sake (the bane of this sort of horror being that a talky execution can never keep up with the ideas behind it), but Oculus provides a suitably scary time at the movies that hopefully signals better things to come from the team behind it.