Of all the holidays celebrated worldwide, no single day is loved by the Substream staff more than Halloween. With October’s arrival, the time has finally come to begin rolling out a slew of special features we have prepared in celebration of our favorite day.
31 Days Of Halloween is a recurring column that will run throughout the month of October. The goal of this series is to supply every Substream reader with a daily horror (or Halloween-themed) movie recommendation that is guaranteed to amplify your All Hallows’ Eve festivities. We’ll be watching every film the day it’s featured, and we hope you will follow along at home. Reader, beware, you’re in for a… spooky good time!
Day 3: The Sacrament (2014)
What if Vice covered a Jonestown-style cult massacre?
This is essentially what The Sacrament posits, and to fine form. When the film debuted in 2013, the relatively young director Ti West had already built himself a fairly impressive portfolio of cult horror favorites, many with thriller or slasher angles: Trigger Man (2007), The House of the Devil (2009), You’re Next (2011), The Innkeepers (2011), and V/H/S (2012), among others.
The Sacrament was another strong entry for West’s mark on independent horror. Patrick, a fashion photographer, receives a letter from his expatriate sister, Caroline, who has supposedly taken up with a religious organization that is creating a new living community in an unnamed foreign land. She invites him to see what they’ve established; Patrick, intrigued by the situation (and sympathetic to his recovering addict sister) accepts and takes along two Vice coworkers to document the trip.
From there, things become immediately tense, from their initial jeep ride driven by armed guards to the powderkeg ending. Like most cults, its members have given up everything they had, sold it off and contributed the money in hopes of establishing a new community free of violence, sexism, racism, and other societal ills most everyone can generally agree are ostensibly bad. Sounds promising enough, right? What could possibly go wrong?
West leans on thriller-style suspense that cleverly builds over the course of the trip as the journalists craft their documentary, narrating their eyewitness accounts and conducting several short interviews with members of the community, including a brutally tense interview with the cult leader in front of all his followers. As the layers are peeled back, tensions mount and the viewer is clued in to the evil inherent in this supposed utopia. The film is delivered entirely in a documentary-style found footage presentation and sure, a rash of found footage films invaded theaters after the wild popularity of The Blair Witch Project in 1999. Some were more watered-down than others, but The Sacrament isn’t one of them (and, granted, it also feels more cinematic than Blair Witch). The documentary framing gives key insight into the journalists’ thoughts and outright fears as they slowly discover how truly awry and outright sinister the situation is that they’ve landed themselves in. Many of the community’s members appear happy and optimistic, blissfully unaware of what’s actually to come. It mirrors the viewer’s perspective some, but the audience likely knows what’s coming.
Anyone familiar with the Jonestown massacre can easily predict how the story is developing until it fully boils over in abject horror and tragedy. It’s almost a bit too on the nose, but it does provide one hell of a dramatization, showing how that cult’s ending likely unfolded. It’s a drawn-out climax that’s difficult to watch and which forcefully delivers the “horror” payoff and element of The Sacrament. But that’s not to dismiss the strength of the film’s journey, because it’s a delightfully stressful one. It relies less on the hokey jump scares its modern peers abuse and more on the slow burn and build of eerie atmosphere perfected by many classic horror predecessors (Psycho, The Omen, The Shining, etc. etc.). It doesn’t quite reach modern classic territory, but it’s a very good and convincing condemnation of present-day, mindless groupthink, even when surface intentions are supposedly good—a plague as relevant today as it was 40 years ago.