When searching for the most frightening stories, sometimes it’s best to turn to real life for inspiration. The Sacrament, the latest feature from celebrated indie horror filmmaker Ti West (The House of The Devil, The Innkeepers), takes as its subject the terrible tragedy at Jonestown in 1978. News junkies may remember the story of the controversial preacher Jim Jones and his congregation of hundreds of followers who moved with him to Guyana to found the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project. Fearing outside interference, Jones and his followers eventually committed mass suicide on November 18, 1978 as either an act of religious empowerment or an act of religious defiance. Over 900 people lost their lives.
“It’s something that I’ve always been fascinated by,” West recalls, “because of the pop culture, ‘drink the Kool Aid’ sort of jargon of it all. I don’t think people remember or paid attention to how crazy of a thing it was. I think people’s idea of it was that there were these crazy religious people who all killed themselves to go to heaven. It’s so much more complicated and it’s a very dense story. It’s really a story about people who were manipulated into a mass murder rather than a mass suicide. And I think that’s what’s always been most fascinating to me.”
West added that a long-form re-assessment of the Jonestown tragedy is worth considering and that the shocking tragedy is still of note decades later. “I’d love to see a eight-part miniseries about it, but no one is going to give me the money to make that. I thought there was a way to update that story to modern times. The reason people joined People’s Temple in the 70s is still very relevant today. I think that the way that we get our news today, for the most part, is online and [with] embedded journalism and video journalism in general, there are weird blurred lines that go with that. That also related back to what happened at Jonestown with NBC and Congressman Ryan [Leo Ryan was murdered upon attempting to leave Jonestown after making an investigativee visit with NBC]. So I felt like I could update that story and in some way tell the same story but in a ‘history repeating itself’ sort of way.”
The Sacrament uses the terrifying events of Jonestown (the unofficial name of the village the group occupied) as the basis for a new tale. Upon hearing that their employee’s sisters has joined a secluded religious organization overseas, Brooklyn-based journalists working for real-life media company VICE decide to investigate. Patrick, who’s sister is the one who has invited him to film a piece on the folks of Eden Parish, brings along two crew members to document the secretive organization for VICE viewers back home. Arriving at Eden Parish, everyone from men, women and children appear welcoming and cheerful to their inquisitive visitors. First impressions can be deceiving, however. As played by Gene Jones, the charismatic Father (a stand-in for Jim Jones) kills, sometimes literally, with kindness.
“I used the disaster that was Jonestown, the last 48 hours, as the model for the movie,” West explained, “and really, to me, the movie is much more about the people in the cult. I think in movies, you see cults and they are always the crazy bad guys. I tried to make the people in this cult seem like regular people… rather than being just horror movie people. I used the Jonestown story as the model, the set-piece, for the movie, but the themes that come out of my interest in Jonestown and in the movie are relevant either way.”
VICE, the 20-year-old media company founded in Montreal, Quebec, has developed a reputation for developing stories on the underseen, marginalized and often controversial. On their YouTube page, for example, some of their most viewed videos are The Cannibal Warlords of Liberia, Getting High Injecting Snake VenomUK’s Scariest Debt Collector and Suicide Forrest in Japan. Sensational as they may be, VICE should be commended for the lengths they go to cover these often ignored stories. “I think that what they are doing is great,” West notes, “I mean, nothing [in The Sacrament] is criticizing them. It’s putting out a conversation starter and it’s not about them specifically. What’s interesting about VICE is they are doing video journalism and they have their brand, but politically they don’t seem to lean left or right. Their brand is ‘we’re going places where other people aren’t going’ and 'we’re giving you our honest, objective opinion of what it is and with a useful angle.’ I think it’s interesting what they do. They are obviously turning into a much bigger, broader company in the ways they’re even covering news. People got information on Arab Spring from VICE.”
Unbiased in its reporting, VICE is especially popular among young people, and the company’s inclusion in The Sacrament was very intentional. “What was most important to me is that they’re at the forefront of this video journalism thing, which is where I think everything is going, and, like I said, they don’t have a political agenda,” said West. “Everything else, whether it’s MSNBC, Fox News… you know what their agenda is and what their brand is pushing politically. I feel like that’s frustrating and that you’re always going to get some sort of biased media. [VICE] doesn’t feel biased, in a way.”
West explains that while he wanted The Sacrament to contain all the elements of a thriller, it transcends genre by weaving in issues of the day as the story unfolds. “It’s a movie that deals with social, political, racial, economics, religious issues. Yes, it’s a horror movie and all that, but it deals with all those things and… I don’t want to say there’s some responsibility, but I was trying for that in relating it to a lot of real life things and keeping that [aspect] throughout [the movie].”
While labeled a horror film, The Sacrament is emotionally-wrenching and, in its acute observations pertaining to the role of familial instinct, reminiscent of a drama revelling in complex character development. “There’s an element of, whether it’s a horror movie or not is somewhat like semantics,” West noted. “It’s certainly very horrific. For me, the reason I never [included] anything supernatural [in the film] was because I wanted to confront those issues.”
Since the film is visually told via the often handheld video these faux VICE cameramen collect, The Sacrament has rightly or wrongly been labeled a found-footage genre film. Having experimented with the style in the hit horror omnibus VHS (starring Joe Swanberg, who also stars in The Sacrament), West, naturally, has opinions on that categorization. “[Calling it] found footage is semantics, but it's easy to say because then people will understand to some degree the style of movie they're going to see, so I get the value of it. But it's weird because I always just considered that I was making a fake documentary. But to say 'mockumentary' makes people think of comedy, so it's weird. I was just like 'well, we are making a fake documentary.' It's not really found-footage because it's not like this tape was dug up and this was what was on it.”
Any filmmaker crafting a found-footage work will have to work extra hard to consciously avoid certain pitfalls. (How polished is too polished? Is it natural for the person holding the camera to be this comfortable with the device?) West added: “Generally, found-footage movies are not going to be cinematic, because it goes against that, it's supposed to seem clumsy and real… and so while there is some of that in the film, I was also able to set up some interesting camera directions and some interesting cinematic things because that is what the characters are thinking about to a certain degree… In starting the movie with text and music and things like that, it's hoping to establish the idea that this is an after-the-fact made thing, so not to be hung up on the found-footage element of it. But it's neither here nor there.”
If you have an opinion on organized religion and the extremes it may sometimes lead to, West is careful not to indulge in your preconceived notions or misconceptions; the film is more observational than polemical. “It was trying to keep that vibe going of ‘they’re not just crazy cult people.' They are people who were in a bad situation and this was a better situation. There’s a point in the movie where [fellow reporter] Sam (played by AJ Bowen) says ‘I get why people want to live like this. I don’t want to, but I understand why some people would want to.' In keeping that going through, with everyone having different family structures and seeing how it makes sense to each person differently, I felt that it kept that conversation going, kept things hopefully objective so you’re not just going ‘crazy villains!,' which is something I was trying to avoid.”
The Sacrament screens Friday, February 21 in Film Comment Selects with director Ti West in person for Q&A.