The enormous number of new DVD releases every week is mind-numbing, particularly since so many of them are the direct-to-video type, like A Dangerous Man (the latest drivel from Steven Seagal). Usually I’m not in the least tempted by a title I’ve never heard of, but last week I made an exception, solely because I recognized the name of the director. The movie is The Sacrament (2013). The writer-director is Ti West, probably not familiar to many moviegoers, but a man whose prior films were original enough to further pique my interest.
It’s not easy being original in the horror genre, but West pulled it off with The House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2011). In the strictest sense, though, The Sacrament is not a horror film. It’s not about monsters, demons, or slashers, even though it deals tangentially (as the title suggests) with the supernatural in terms of religious mania. The plot is loosely but pointedly based on the infamous Jonestown Massacre of 1978 when, under the aegis of the charismatic Jim Jones, more than 900 people committed suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid.
West’s film follows a three-man television crew who goes to investigate the goings-on at Eden Parish somewhere south of the U.S., home to a cultish religious group headed by The Father (Gene Jones). Ostensibly trying to contact a sister of one of the crew members, the three men also hope to get a TV segment out of their efforts. They end up getting a lot more than they bargained for, as events quickly spiral into the same vortex of violence that marked the real debacle, which included the murders of a U.S. Congressman and members of his entourage at a nearby airport.
While there’s nothing terribly new in his approach, including the “documentary” style of handheld camera, West still elicits an especially riveting performance from Gene Jones as the paternal head of the doomed parish. With a steadily increasing sense of dread, his luckless crew, along with viewers, are skillfully propelled on an odyssey into a real heart of darkness, all the more disturbing because of its counterpart in real life.
Reflecting on Jim Jones by way of his fictional counterpart in The Sacrament, I was reminded of a movie I first saw nearly 25 years ago, also about religious mania and cults but even better than The Sacrament, and considerably odder. The Rapture (1991) starred Mimi Rogers (the first Mrs. Tom Cruise) in her best role ever as jaded, amoral telephone operator Sharon who discovers Jesus and a small group of believers who are convinced that the Rapture is at hand. Co-starring David Duchovny (two years before The X-Files), The Rapture is truly one-of-a-kind, not to be confused with the current crop of faith-based films nor as a critique of religious faith. Featuring some fairly graphic sex and occasional violence, the movie defies expectations all along the way.
The first of only two films written and directed by Michael Tolkin (Oscar-nominated for writing Robert Altman’s The Player), The Rapture focuses not so much on the question of religious truth but on a sympathetic but ultimately tragic character forced to choose between principle and a very real salvation — or not.
Not a great film (budgetary constraints hamper the conclusion) but still an extremely curious one (making it better than most) with excellent performances from the leads, The Rapture is as controversial today as it was when first released. And well worth another look.