Impressions: The Sacrament and the Role of Horror Movies

So I have seen the film The Sacrament more than once and always walked away with from it with a hinky feeling. That feeling is caused by the fact that it’s clearly meant to be a horror movie version of Jonestown and what happened there. For people that lack knowledge on either subject a quick break down.

Jonestown was a settlement started by The Peoples Temple a cult founded by Jim Jones. In 1978 a mass suicide was staged that claimed the lived of 918 people. In modern (emphasis on modern) history it was the largest loss of American lives until 9/11. There are plenty of podcasts, books, and other sources that cover just how awful this event was and how much power Jim Jones had over the lives of the people involved. The event that started the mass suicide and murder of others was a senator (who also died) who brought a film crew to look at the compound in Guyana. Jim Jones took this as a threat to his power, had the senator and his film crew killed, and then convinced his people to kill themselves. It is an often overlooked part of our history but dark none the less. And again, even though it did not take place in America, it was a huge marker in the number of American lives lost in the modern era. I will not break down the entire event, but you should look into it.

The Sacrament is a found footage horror film based on the event. A film crew representing “vice” goes to a commune in South America at the behest of a friend who is worried about their sister. There they meet the enigmatic “father” (Jim Jones character) and the people in the commune. The filmmakers go back and forth between believing the place is bad for the people in it, or weird and disconcerting but overall harmless. When a person asks for help (much like in the real-life events) suddenly things fall apart. Father orders a mass suicide and the murder of all those that don’t comply.

So here we get to my core issue with the idea of this film, and a broader question of what role horror fills is modern movies.

Despite my overall objections to Eli Roth (who produced it) The Sacrament is a good film. Even with me not loving found footage films it works in this case. A documentary crew goes to film what is happening, and it fits with what the movie is trying to do. They interview people, they find slightly off-putting things, but realize that overall while the idea of this place bothers them, it seems harmless enough. Their objectivity forces them to overcome the fact that these people gave up their entire lives to be part of this.

It even works well with their meeting with “Father” because it shows his ability to manipulate and control situations. Father turns the interview on its head and takes control, even in the face of a seasoned reporter. Jim Jones, like all infamous cult leaders, was known to have that same talent. When things fall apart, the cameraman insists that he must record what is happening in the hopes that someday, someone will find the footage. This works very well and keeps the intensity of the moment without weak explanations for why we are still in found footage.

I think found footage is overused when the film could be serviceable without it. This film uses it in a smart way, and it works from start to finish.

It’s intense, it’s heartbreaking, it’s suspenseful, it’s horrific, it’s a good horror film.

But wait, I mentioned at the start of this that I had issues with it. And now we arrive at my core question. Horror is often seen as a genre specifically for the purpose of entertainment and while trying to go for entertainment facts are often lost. The Ed Gein mythos has been entirely changed by horror films, and fact means very little in the face of “based on a true story, but we are going for the scares” in the genre overall. With that context, I find something overwhelming problematic about presenting Jonestown as a horror film. And yet…

The Sacrament is a solid representation of what Jim Jones did to create a situation by in which almost 1000 expat citizens killed themselves, and a handful were murdered for merely looking into it.

All the themes are there. Jim Jones built on the race relations that were happening in America during the civil rights movement. The Sacrament emphasizes the coming together of races. Jim Jones tried to build on the hippie movement of you work for your needs, and you don’t have worldly possessions. The Sacrament is all about that. Jim Jones found people that were dealing with significant drug problems that rose in the counterculture of the time, many of the victims in The Sacrament were trying to get clean. Jim Jones was a preacher, the leader in The Sacrament was as well. I could go on and on about details that match with the film and with the actual Peoples Temple.

The fact is while the movie puts it in a modern setting and changes important details, it is still a very true to life representation of what Jim Jones managed to build and then destroy. It is more on point than some biopics without actually trying to be a biopic.

Yet horror films have often taken “true life” events and made them larger than life to fit entertainment. I mentioned Ed Gein and he among others (Jack the Ripper) will remain perfect examples of that.

Horror is the best genre to explain what happened at Jonestown. A charismatic leader took advantage of the disenfranchised, he promised them paradise and controlled everything about their lives down to their deaths, which occurred in the hundreds. That is horrific.

So perhaps the answer is in allowing horror to represent these real-life events but doing so in a more true to life way. It shouldn’t be “you can either have a mostly factual account of a horrific event or a horror movie based on it” and instead be “horror movies can present things in an entertaining but mostly factual way and still show horror.”

I think The Sacrament (despite its age) can and should mark a change in horror films. Many others have touched on Jonestown but added so much to it and are hardly as effective as this movie was. I would like horror directors to respect the events they are depicting and do it in an honest way.

For the faults, it has some moments happen in The Sacrament that will not leave most people and will horrify them, which is the goal of horror movies. If this movie can do it, others can as well. Instead of being bothered that this movie attempts to make entertainment out of such a horrific event I would like it to be a marker in the shift of horror.

You don’t have to over embellish. You don’t have to make things larger than life. You can take a terrible event, stay true to the important themes, and create a haunting, compelling, and horrific experience for the audience. We need fewer movies that go the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (as much as I love that movie) route with “based on a true story” and more of The Sacrament.

The movie itself though, I would recommend overall. It’s troubling, for many reasons, so go in with that knowledge. I would also say that knowing little about Jonestown might help or hurt but either way, before or after viewing this film do your research. The Peoples Temple was a horrific event and one we need to acknowledge. It gets lost in the death cult discussions and should not. Many people know the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” but don’t know why we use it (or that it was funaid) which is saddening. I was one of those people so no judgment.

What do you think? Do you think horror can respectfully represent the horror of history or does the genre itself say no? Have you seen The Sacrament? How do you feel about it as both a movie and a representation of Jonestown?

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