Stuart Gordon is a writer/director/producer of film, television and theater. He is best known for the cult classic Re-Animator and for murdering his wife Carolyn in his films whenever possible.
The Sacrament can be described as a “found-footage” film. This term was popularized by The Blair Witch Project in 1999, and refers to the conceit that the material was created for a documentary and discovered after the death or disappearance of the crew who supposedly made it. My own kids, who were teenagers back then, believed Blair Witch was a real documentary. “They couldn’t say it was true if it wasn’t!” they naively insisted. And even the Sundance Film Festival supposedly classified the film as a documentary before originally screening it.
I once met Joshua Leonard, one of the young stars of Blair Witch, who told me that his family was deluged with sympathy notes filled with heartfelt condolences on the loss of their son Josh after the film was originally released.
But the real credit for the found-footage film belongs to Italian director Ruggero Deodato who in 1980 released Cannibal Holocaust, which actually resulted in his arrest for murder. The film purports to show found footage of an expedition to the Amazon rainforest where the unlucky filmmakers end up being devoured by a tribe of real-life cannibals. Shot in a documentary style and showing real animals being slaughtered on camera, the film was believed to be an actual snuff film and Deodato narrowly avoided being sent to prison when he was forced to present the living actors as evidence of his innocence at his murder trial. Nonetheless, the film ended up being banned in Italy and many other countries.
I had the pleasure of meeting Deodato in 2008 at the Fantastic’Arts film festival in Gérardmer, France, where we were both serving on the jury. Among the films being screened that year were: [REC], Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead, all found-footage films of various budgets and expertise and I told Ruggero that they all should be paying him a royalty as they were freely using his concept. He shrugged and laughed.
I had assumed that the found-footage film had peaked back then, but I underestimated the film industry’s unending talent for squeezing the last few cents out of an overdone concept. (Which reminds me – how many more zombie movies will we be forced to endure?) There have been a few notable exceptions: a couple of years ago, we got End Of Watch, David Ayer’s excellent police procedural in which both the officers and the perps videotape themselves endlessly. And now we have The Sacrament, Ti West’s version of the Jonestown Massacre done as another found-footage extravaganza.
West is an interesting filmmaker who uses the same repertory company of actors: A.J. Bowen, Joe Swanberg (himself a talented director) and Amy Seimetz show up again and again. These performers also often appear in films by director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett and even Ti West ends up with a part in the pair’s most recent film, You’re Next. And I just saw Swanberg in Zack Parker’s Proxy. So this is clearly a group of people who enjoy each other’s company and are creating an extensive and impressive body of work.
I wish I could say that I enjoyed The Sacrament more than I did, but unfortunately the overdone conventions of the almost 35-year-old found-footage subgenre ends up doing it in. It also doesn’t help that the actual event they are presenting is even older. I just saw a rebroadcast of a real documentary of the Jonestown Massacre on CNN and found it about a hundred times more disturbing.
All of these found-footage movies always end up with me wondering who the hell is taping this and why? Wouldn’t any rational person simply be running for his life? And this is my reaction to The Sacrament. The actors perform well, although Swanberg wears a Rambo-style headband throughout the entire film. Am I alone in never having experienced anyone really doing this in real life? (With the exception of Robert Rodriguez, who doesn’t count as “real life.”) And Gene Jones, who plays Father, the Jim Jones-like cult leader, and who was so excellent as the terrified convenience store owner in the famous coin toss scene in No Country for Old Men, lacks the kind of charisma that would cause a group of over a hundred people to leave everything behind and blindly follow him into the wilderness.
But I must admit that, like many others, I have become a fan of this talented ensemble of actor/directors and look forward to their next batch of films.
The Sacrament is produced and presented by the ubiquitous Eli Roth, who has recently returned to directing with The Green Inferno, which I have yet to see. But from what I’ve read about his new film (about Amazon rainforest cannibals), it sounds like he may also owe some royalties to Ruggero Deodato.