There are two hot-button phrases tossed about in horror recently. One is “slow-burn”, the other is “found-footage”. Besides the fact that each category is vague and mostly meaningless, both techniques illicit equal parts praise and derision, depending on the particular sect of the horror fandom you ask. So what happens when these two pseudo-descriptors collide? What happens when the king of “slow-burn” picks up a “found-footage” habit? The answer lies within the running time of Ti West’s latest film The Sacrament.
The Sacrament explains its found-footage approach by introducing an online news outlet that is following a man as he plans to meet his sister who happens to have joined a particularly secluded cult. This cult has created its own town and community, separated by force from the outside world. So there is no question that the first person, found-footage approach is logical here. But logic aside, is it aesthetically beneficial to the movie? Does the split from the traditional omnipotent camera add anything to the experience here? The answer is yes, mostly. There are still times when the technique bends under the weight of its own constraints, but for the most part the “news footage” approach adds to the characterization of the journalists, the citizens of the cult, and the ultimate tension that results.
When the found-footage bends, though, Ti West makes an interesting choice here. He quits using it. Whenever Father(Gene Jones) is speaking for instance, the camera escapes found footage and magically becomes omnipotent. It also breaks the chains of found-footage when the larger group tension escalates. All constraints gone, the camera jumps from person to person, frenetically searching for some solidity. Given the history of Ti West films and that the camera noticeably loses its found-footage foundation during specific, deliberate sequences, one has to assume this was a conscious choice on the director’s part. And this is why the terms “found-footage” and “slow-burn” should never be met with excitement or derision on their own accord. They are both techniques, tools for the creators of the material. When you find an exceedingly talented and confident director, any tool can be used effectively. Luckily, for viewers of The Sacrament, Ti West seems to be continually advancing as a director. Everything in this film is well placed and deliberate.
Speaking of well placed and deliberate, the cast of The Sacrament could very well be the best ensemble performance in recent horror history. Nary a misstep or false moment, the cast portrays the humanity and motivations of each of their characters with such deftness that the film carries the extra weight of invested outcomes. The audience will care about these people, on both sides of the narrative line. This investment is largely due to the casts ability to portray the lean script’s very basic mention of their motivations and larger lives.
Make no mistake though, The Sacrament begins and ends with the skill of Ti West. While this is a very basic script, thematically and otherwise, the execution and creative choices of West allows the film to rise about simple shock-horror. Mentioned above is the creative abandonment of found-footage, along with that are moments of slo-mo that, for lack of a better term, really creeped me out. Throw in an amazingly subtle score and you get a film that is technically found-footage and, yes, slow-burn. Those two identifiers, however, are misnomers in the sense that they tend to reduce a film to a finite genre picture that is more gimmick than story. The Sacrament is far from a gimmick, it is a well crafted film that uses those identifiers as tools to illicit an emotional response from the audience. The fact that it succeeds so wholly to do so is the true mark of what a creative force that Ti West is becoming. As they say, any tool can be a weapon if you hold it right. Ti West holds it right.