10 October 2014

close to home: the sacrament

Last night, while chatting with a friend during my viewing of “The Sacrement,” I learned something nearly as horrifying- there are young people in this country that have never heard of Jonestown. If you are one of them, believe me, I am not blaming you for this. Rather it’s just shocking to me- a child of the 80s, not even a decade out from that massacre- that schools have somehow omitted that particular incident from curriculum in the 21st century. It’s kind of like meeting children who have never read Harry Potter, and rather jarring. 

Dapper as fuck. Also fucking
On November 18, 1978, religious zealot and cult leader Jim Jones ordered his entire commune of followers to commit suicide via poisoned drinks, rather than allow an incoming government action break apart the “utopia” he had created. In the resulting mass suicide, several journalists and one US politician were murdered, and any followers unwilling to “drink the kool aid” (which is where that particular colloquialism comes from, by the way) were executed by armed guards Jones had stationed around his settlement in the South American nation of Guyana. In less than one morning, hundreds died, many of them willingly relinquishing their lives rather than be (forcibly?) re-assimilated back into American society. It was one of the worst mass suicides on record, and possibly the worst religious-based disaster in centuries.

(It’s also the day my attorney was born, which he really loves pointing out, the sick bastard.)

I, like many children of the 80s, saw the newsreel footage in school, and was taught the bare basics about what had happened. It was a solid, terrifying lesson in not following the crowd, or allowing yourself to get swept up in mass hysteria or the mad leanings of a charismatic religious figure. It was standard curriculum in grade school, junior high, and high school US history classes. I even wrote my honors paper on the fundamentalist angle that allowed Jim Jones to relocate hundreds of US citizens out of the country and essentially into the jungle. 

Even the glasses are the same...
I bring this up because The Sacrament is pretty much “Jonestown: The Motion Picture.” I hinted as much on twitter: creepy religious cult in the jungle with an aversion to outsiders allows one small news crew in for an interview. Nothing wrong there, unless you know about Jonestown, at which point the fact you are watching a horror movie will mix with your knowledge of US history, and you can see exactly where the film is going. It’s not only similar, it’s nearly identical, from the layout of the fictional “Eden Parish” to the clothing worn by “Father-” he spends his entire screen time both looking and sounding like Jim Jones. 

This firm grounding in reality blows apart any cathartic benefits this movie would have. Unlike other cult-based films or journeys down the road of a charismatic monster, the violence and gut-wrenching death scenes are entirely real, and plausible. No decapitations or bloody altars, but enough death convulsions and gunshot wounds to make you think you were watching a real documentary. And the slow burn building up to the film’s climax amplifies the dread that seeps out from Father’s final speech to his commune. It’s too real to be fiction. It feels too authentic. 

Movie or real life? 
That fact alone makes the movie horrifying. Unlike the cathartic attributes of slasher flicks or monster movies (I mean, that kind of shit doesn’t really happen), the massacre at Eden Parish actually did. And from most accounts, the reality was even worse than the fiction. You can remind yourself that it’s a movie all you want, but one Google search shows that the term “based on a true story” (which isn’t used in the film at all. They never reference Jonestown directly, not even in the credits) doesn’t even begin to apply to the events in The Sacrament. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if the writers and director lifted Father’s speeches directly from things Jones said, but I’m not about to go down that road. 

Is your skin crawling yet? It should be. The Sacrament isn’t the type of over-the-top torture porn that Eli Roth is known for directing and producing. When I saw Roth’s name on here, I expected buckets of blood and male gratification through butchered women/Nazis. But there is nothing exploitative in this movie: it’s subtle, understated, and disturbing on the same levels one finds when reading about a serial killer. It watches like elaborate fiction, but deep inside you know its not. This not only can happen, it did. 

I don’t like saying everyone should watch any movie, but this one I highly recommend. I read reviews that said it was too slow, too unsatisfying, or that it falls apart in the third act, but found none of that to be the case. It moves at a perfect pace to create tension, which is suitably resolved in a downward spiral of deaths that never seem fake or forced. The director once tried to justify in an interview his use of violence in the movie, but after watching it I wonder why he bothered? The violence is entirely appropriate when it takes place, and the kills scenes look like actual kill scenes. I know I said this before, several times, but watching this is one of the most real experiences you can have watching a work of fiction. Because it is real. THIS SHIT REALLY HAPPENED. 

I can’t hammer that home enough. Watching the Sacrament is watching history. So if you don’t know about Jonestown, this is a good place to start. 

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