The director Ti West, whose credits include the very fine horror movie “The House of the Devil,” has a talent for dread. He’s so good at raising the little hairs on your neck and keeping them on alert that you can only feel let down when he doesn’t deliver a movie that makes good on his setup.
That’s the case with his latest, “The Sacrament,” a neo-exploitation flick that shifts from the unnerving to the hollow after it becomes evident that West is more interested in showing how his characters die than how they lived.
It doesn’t help that he seems to encourage you to wish the worst on at least some of them, notably a troika that serves as this tale’s metaphoric blind mice.
The trap is a sprawling community in an unnamed country; the bait is Caroline (Amy Seimetz), a sister of one of the mice, Patrick (Kentucker Audley). He’s received a letter from Caroline, a former addict who claims to have found deliverance in a utopia called Eden Parish.
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Disconcerted, Patrick decides to visit her with two Vice Media reporters – a correspondent, Sam (a good A.J. Bowen), and videographer, Jake (Joe Swanberg) – who hope the trip leads to a story.
With its on-screen text, jittery digital visuals and on-camera talking heads, the movie has been constructed to resemble a documentary, an overly familiar horror-genre strategy that is itself an ominous sign.
What the three discover is a compound that’s loosely modeled on Jonestown, the doomed Peoples Temple settlement founded in Guyana by the Rev. Jim Jones, who, in 1978, ushered more than 900 of his followers into a murder-suicide ceremony.
West, who also wrote the screenplay and edited “The Sacrament,” never mentions Jones or the Peoples Temple, though the identity of the smooth talker in shades, simply called Father (a fine Gene Jones), is obvious.
Less clear is what West thought he was doing with this depressing, grim story, which here becomes a pointless, abjectly impersonal re-creation of mass death, one poisoned sip and fired bullet at a time. Movie murder is such easy entertainment; what’s harder is keeping viewers interested if a filmmaker has no point of view.
Jonestown is a ghastly, complex world-historical event: It is the truest kind of horror story. West sets the scene reasonably well, ratcheting up a sense of unease with old-fashioned shadows and some nighttime scrambling, but he gets lost once he shifts from fooling around in the dark to recreating mass death.
It’s especially disappointing that he shows no interest in the real people who died at Jonestown, much less charismatic totalitarianism and terror.
For inquiries into power and its abuses, look to “Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones,” a 1980 TV movie with Powers Boothe, and “Letters to Dad,” Beth B and Scott B’s 1979 shocker about the tragedy.