Written and directed by Ti West (he of House Of The Devil and The Innkeepers fame) and very clearly influenced by the Jim Jones/People's Temple mass murder, 2013's The Sacrament introduces us to Patrick (Kentucker Audley), a photographer. His sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), had some drug addiction issues in the past but since getting out of rehab has found a new start at the Eden Parish commune. Despite the fact that Caroline has been spotty at best when it comes to providing Patrick with details about commune life at Eden Parish, Patrick agrees to come out and visit her but figures he might as well bring co-workers Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) along for the ride in hopes that this'll turn into a newsworthy story for their employer, Vice Magazine. The only way to get in or out of this place, located on a remote Caribbean island, if by helicopter.
Upon their arrival Patrick quickly realizes that Caroline is in fact a changed woman, she seems happier and healthier than she has in ages and things appear to be quite positive for her. Of course, the more the guys wander around and start talking to members of the congregation, the more they start to wonder if all is really as it seems. Once they're introduced to the man who runs Eden Parrish, a man referred to only as The Father (Gene Jones), well, the truth about Eden Parrish quickly comes to the surface and it turns out that it isn't the serene spiritual retreat some would have them believe.
By positing the idea that the characters are actually reporting for Vice (who do tend to send reporters off to locations that more mainstream outlets tend to ignore) West allows the found footage style employed here to be used quite realistically. Yes, there is a bit of shaky cam action here sure to turn off those who go into the movie with a pre-disposed hatred of the tactic but in the context of the story being told, it is used effectively in this picture. It also makes the fact that some shots are better set up and lit than others a realistic piece of the action in that, yeah, some of those shots that look nice? They're setup by the characters to look that way. This makes it easy and logical for the audience to toss out whatever misgivings they might have in regards to the consistency of the quality of the footage itself, a common problem with movies shot in this style.
What really makes The Sacrament work, however, is the cast and the way in which they deliver their performances. West has worked with a lot of the cast members he uses here before and maybe for that reason he knows how to direct them and get good work out of them. Audley is quite good as the guy who gets all of this moving in the first place and we can certainly understand and, thanks to his work, believe his concern for Amy Seimetz's character. Seimetz, to her credit, paints Caroline in realistic terms. Given that she has had these addiction problems and is just fresh out of rehab it makes sense that her psyche might be fragile enough to fall in with a cult like Eden Parish. West regulars AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg are also very good here. Though Swanberg's character spends much of his time behind the camera he winds up playing an interesting role in the story later on and the way in which he's used is clever. A bit more depth of character would have helped make the key players more memorable but as far as the acting itself goes, it's very solid all the way around.
Into this mix of younger actors comes Gene Jones (who some may remember from a small role in No Country For Old Men, essentially playing the Jim Jones character. While he doesn't really physically resemble that notorious historical character he definitely has the right sense of screen presence to make the role work. As ‘The Father' he has a weight to his role that makes him a commanding and mysteriously charismatic type, the kind that feels as if he could and would be able to manipulate his parish the way he seemingly does here. On the outside he's all smiles and good natured charm but the menace and evil that obviously inhabit his character are never far out of view. He was a great casting choice and is quite eerie in this picture.
As far as the story itself goes, again, it's very obviously inspired by the Jim Jones story that took place in Guyana in 1978 to the point where you kind of know where it's all going to go. On top of that the movie introduces us to some interesting cult members by way of the crew's interviews but fails to really capitalize on their introductions by giving them much screen time. Caroline is understandably the focus in that regard but the movie could have fleshed things out and gone in some more interesting directions by using more of the supporting players more often than it does. There are some good twists here to be sure and while the first half takes its time in terms of its pacing, the second half ramps up the tension considerably by playing off of elements previous established. Some of this feels a little too familiar though and as good as much of this is, more seasoned horror fans will have seen some of this before.
The Sacrament arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.78.1 widescreen. As this was shot digitally there are obviously no issues with any print damage, dirt or debris. Detail is typically very good though in some of the scenes where the camera moves a lot you can't really tell. More static shots look nice though, and color reproduction is pretty solid throughout the movie, you'll pick up on the lush greens of the surroundings pretty often. Black levels are good, skin tones look accurate and quite lifelike and there are no issues with any noise reduction or edge enhancement. There might be a tiny bit of crush in a couple of the darker scenes but other than that the movie looks very good on Blu-ray.
The only audio option on the disc is an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track with optional subtitles provided in English SDH, French and Spanish. Quality of the audio on this disc is quite good, with nice directionality present throughout the movie. You'll notice this during the helicopter scene and more action oriented scenes like that but so too will you hear it when The Father addresses his congregation and in other more subtle areas. It's a pretty enveloping mix and heightens tension nicely. Levels are properly balanced and there are no issues with any hiss or distortion to note. Bass response is good and all in all, this mix works rather well.
Extras start off with a commentary track from Ti West who is joined by cast members AJ Bowen and Amy Seimetz. West's commentary tracks are typically quite interesting and this one is no exception. The fact that he and Bowen and Seimetz have a good relationship together helps to ensure that everyone here is comfortable with one another and as such the conversation flows pretty well. They cover a lot of ground here, from the writing process and inspiration to casting the picture to the location scouting and shooting. The actors talk about their experiences in front of the camera and discuss their characters while West's comments a bit more technical. It's an interesting and well-paced track.
The disc also includes a twenty-one minute long featurette called Creating The Sacrament: Revealing The Vision in which producer Eli Roth interviews West and some members of his cast and crew as to what it was like working on the picture. They discuss some of the themes that the film deals with as well as the characters and concepts, where some of the ideas came from and quite a bit more including how and why the movie uses the found footage motif. There's a second featurette here called Working With The Director: The Ti West Experience which is a short piece in which those who worked with West on this production express their admiration for his talents as a director. It runs six minutes. Preparing For Takeoff: Behind The Scenes Of The Helicopter Sequence is, as it sounds, a look at what went into pulling off the helicopter scene that takes place towards the film's big finish running five minutes. Last but not least we get the three and a half minute long AXS TV: A Look At The Sacrament, which is a short look behind the scenes of the film and a couple of short cast and crew interviews. Menus and chapter selection are also included as are some promo spots for other Magnolia releases (but no trailer for the feature itself).
The Sacrament is a little too familiar, in a way it has to be, to really stand as an excellent film but it is at least a very good one. The performances here really make it work and if the concept is a little old hat, it's exploited well and to good effect. The Blu-ray from Magnolia is likewise very good, offering up a nice selection of extras as well as plenty of supplements. This is a strong horror movie, and sometimes quite clever. As such, it's one worth seeing and it comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.