M.L. Miller here! As I go into the tenth year of reviewing horror films, I wanted to go back to the beginning and repost some of the films I loved. Moving on to Year Four of my year-long Retro-Best in Horror I’m recapping the Countdown beginning officially on October 1, 2013 and going through September 30, 2014. I have posted compilation lists in the past, but a lot of those old reviews haven’t seen the light of day since they were first posted many moons ago. Being the OCD person that I am, I have also worked and reworked the list, looking back at my own choices and shifting them around, and even adding a few that I might have missed or looked over from the year in question. So, if you think you know how these lists are going to turn out, you don’t!
How did I compile this list? I simply looked through films released between October 1st, 2013 and September 30, 2014 and worked and reworked the list until I had the magic number—31. Again, I never call myself any kind of expert in horror. I simply watch a lot of horror films and love writing about them. Don’t forget to like and share my picks with your pals across the web on your own personal social media. Chime in after the review and let me know what you think of the film, how on the nose or mind-numbingly wrong I am, or most importantly, come up with your own darn list…let’s go!
Released on May 1, 2014. Available on digital download, On Demand, and DVD/Blu-ray!
THE SACRAMENT (2013)
Ti West continues to impress me with his patient hand at storytelling as well as his decisions to not repeat himself. THE SACRAMENT is very unlike his previous films in tone, subject matter and style and by far his biggest budget yet, all of which makes for the director’s most accomplished film to date.
The story follows a VICE reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) and his cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) who during an interview with Patrick, a photographer (Kentucker Audley) find out that his drug-addicted sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) had gone missing and that he had received a letter from her recently telling him that she is ok and living in a religious commune called Eden Parish. Smelling a good story, Sam and Jake follow Patrick who is invited to visit the commune which is at an undisclosed location and can only be reached by helicopter. All of this is setup which occurs in the first ten minutes of the film, the rest follows the gonzo reporters as they try to figure out what the appeal of the commune is to the bright faced people they meet upon arrival and soon uncover that not everything is cheery at Eden Parish.
I don’t want to reveal too much more of the plot mainly because it is a very simple one. It starts out with one goal (to get Caroline home from the parish) but changes rapidly to another (everyone doing everything they can do to get out alive). This being a horror film, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that the commune is not on the up and up. The beauty of this film is in the way West doles out the suspicious activity in tiny, growing beats–first with some strange things happening here and there and ending in a full-scale Armageddon. West uses Caroline’s character to convince us for the better part of the first half of the film that the cult is not a cult at all. It makes the revelation all the more bombastic.
One might think that the film would be boring with most of the action happening in the last 30 minutes, but because of compelling performances all around, even the quiet bits are utterly engrossing. AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg are two actors I never try to miss. They are fantastic genre stars in their own right but pair them together as they were in A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE and YOU’RE NEXT and you’re bound to find gold. Here the two actors offer up somewhat restrained performances—more restrained than I expected, I have to admit. Bowen is especially likable in this film as Sam, who has a pregnant wife at home about to give birth. This is a detail that makes you root for him to get out of this alive. Swanberg’s Jake is equally likable and seems to have an almost Zen mellowness about him. While I was disappointed there was less snark and witty banter between these two character actors as we saw in YOU’RE NEXT, I understand why West might have not wanted that in this film as it might have steered the film from its serious tone. There does seem to be a deep friendship between the two characters, but both are professionals there to do a job with no time for smart remarks. My disappointment was only momentary though as their performances were on this new level.
The standout role though goes to Gene Jones who most will remember from the “Friendo” scene in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Jones plays the commune leader dubbed Father by the parishioners. Every second of the time he is on camera he commands the entire world. The film builds to an interview between Sam and Father which is held in front of every member of the commune. During these moments, Father is probably the most terrifying character you’re going to see in a film this year. His kind Southern drawl and tendency to quote the bible to give reason to everything is convincing and menacing all at once. Bowen and Jones are amazing in this scene with the role of manipulator and manipulated changing hands throughout. Bowen shows range he hasn’t before in this scene and Jones’ verse-coated threats are mesmerizing.
Shot in a faux documentary style, West does toss in some editing cheats here and there in order to tell the story he wants. If you are to believe that this footage has been edited and processed in some kind of tell-all documentary format, the cuts are understandable, but the film is not presented in that manner at the beginning. Had this started with the opening credits with the VICE logo, it would have been more believable. But I doubt the more candid behind the scenes stuff at the beginning would have made the cut in a real doc. West also uses a score in this film which supports the faux documentary feel, but again, the opening hour was presented more as a found footage film and the score just doesn’t fit. The music during the scenes of tension and suspense are appropriate in a cinematically shot film, but here it raised more questions for me about the format and had me looking for a keyboardist and a cellist playing just out of range of the camera in the Eden Parrish pasture.
While I don’t want to spoil the ending, I was taken aback a bit at how close this film relies on the Jim Jones narrative. It was slightly disappointing that West couldn’t come up with something a bit more original that matched the originality of the performances given by the Father and his cult. The use of key elements was a little too on the nose for me. Despite that similarity to real life events, the film does lead to a shocker of an ending.
The final moments of the film are as shocking and horrifying as you’re going to get. West’s slow buildup only works if the payoff is worth it and as all hell breaks loose in the final moments, I found that the wait was most definitely worth it. Like West’s previous films, this isn’t a film that’s going to give you a jump scare every five minutes. What THE SACRAMENT does is invite you in and gets you comfortable before it shows its claws and because of that, it left an undeniable mark on my psyche. It’s a fantastic film with performances that will be seen as classics some day and a tone that will trap you unsuspectingly with kind words and open arms.
THE 2013-2014 COUNTDOWN!
M. L. Miller is a wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of MLMILLERWRITES.COM. Follow @Mark_L_Miller.
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