The cult massacre-by-suicide popularly known as Jonestown took place on November 18, 1978, long before the embrace of the Internet. Over 900 died by poison and gunfire in that Guyana religious commune. Vice Media came into being—first as a Canadian magazine, now a property-for-sale valued at $1 to 2 billion—in 1994. So it’s a little curious that this slow-build fright flick by Ti West (The House of the Devil ) should now begin with the premise of a Vice film crew investigating a cult, fled from America to some unnamed tropical country, without ever mentioning Jonestown. Producer Sam (A.J. Bowen, with a beard like Vice founder Shane Smith) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) are savvy creatures of the new mediasphere. When photographer and colleague Patrick (Kentucker Audley) says his drug-addict sister has joined said cult and has invited him to visit, Jonestown ought to be the first word in their minds. But no.
Unlike The Blair Witch Project, this skeptics-out-of-water thriller doesn’t present itself as a (fake) found-footage exercise. The ersatz interviews, intertitles, and filmmaker comments are representative of a finished product. Someone has survived, or at least their memory cards and flash drives, from the slaughter we all know is coming. Yet West and producer Eli Roth (Hostel, Cabin Fever, etc.) stick to their weirdly ahistorical approach—even when the avuncular cult leader known as “Father” (Gene Jones) strides out to greet the film crew in his safari shirt and dark glasses. He’s a dead ringer for the Rev. Jim Jones (and for Powers Boothe, who played him in the 1980 TV movie). This is like making a movie set in ’30s Germany and pretending we don’t recognize the guy with the funny moustache.
So if West and Roth want to pretend viewers born after 1978 have no awareness of history before 1978 (despite the Internet or even their parents’ stacks of Time issues in the attic), what are we left with? Basically a suspenseless countdown to the fateful Kool-Aid. Sam and company conduct a few unsettling interviews. Patrick’s sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz of Upstream Color and The Off Hours) exhibits some bizarre, paranoid behavior. Then finally a little mute girl—of course she’s mute—hands a plaintive note to the Vice crew: “Please help us.” They’ve got a helicopter waiting the morning after their one-day visit, and everyone wants to be on it. (It’s a Huey UH-1, just like the last choppers leaving during the 1975 fall of Saigon.)
West’s House of the Devil was a scarier and more effective ’80s recreation of a movie-that-never-was (grim cousin to the recent comedy Ping Pong Summer); it felt authentic to the repressed codes and shocks of the Reagan era. That film was a manufactured artifact, a fake that respected its setting. Yet by treading on but ignoring the factual domain, The Sacrament is an entirely bogus, insulting enterprise. Those Christians who perished at Jonestown believed in something, however misguided. West takes no position on that, or on the past, other than the Vice calculation that atrocity equals clicks and eyeballs. Maybe for his next film he can reenact Dennis Rodman’s visit to Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, and pretend we don’t remember the names.
Runs Fri., June 27–Thurs., July 3 at Grand Illusion. Not rated. 95 minutes.