According to actor Gene Jones, "Good horror movies scare you. The best ones disturb you."
After viewing "The Sacrament," I believe the film must belong in the category of "best ones," because it disturbed me - almost as much as the fact that several small children were in the audience to view the movie.
Jones stars in Ti West's new horror movie, "The Sacrament," a found footage film based on a Jonestown-like scenario, with Jones heading the cult in the role of Father. The film was screened Nov. 1 at the Savannah Film Festival.
Several members of the cast, including Jones and AJ Bowen, along with West, who wrote and directed the film, and producers, Peter Phok and Jacob Jaffke, sat down for a panel discussion titled "Horror Filmmaking" earlier in the day.
West, also known for thrillers like "The Innkeepers" and "The House of the Devil," talked about how he wanted to make something different and to move away from supernatural elements by making a scary movie that didn't have the typical monsters in it. He said he wanted to explore what real people are capable of, an idea he said he finds to be scarier than supernatural ghouls.
"This is the most horrific movie I've made," West said.
He also said he's always been fascinated with the Jonestown massacre of 1978, where a total of 918 people died at a settlement in Guyana that was run by a cult-like group known as the Peoples Temple.
"There has always been a disregard to the entire population of that cult," West said. "No one joins a cult - you end up in one."
He said he wanted to explore the ideas behind why people would end up in a cult and move to a place like Guyana.
"It's a major tragic event that most people don't understand," he said.
West and his crew knew they needed a tropical location to recreate a settlement similar to Jonestown, and after looking at Hawaii and Florida, they picked Savannah.
"I was told I was going to make a film in Savannah," Jones said. "I ended up in Rincon!"
The film has that unmistakable Lowcountry stamp. The road leading up to the camp has the same feel of driving through the marsh, and the crew employed a large group of locals for camera work, set work and extras - which explained why the audience contained several children who showed up to see their screen debut.
West discussed the setbacks of filming in the Coastal Empire during late fall and early winter of 2012.
"We thought Savannah was supposed to be warm throughout the year, but it got really cold," he said. "It was like 45 degrees and we had about 300 extras in T-shirts."
But the cold weather didn't make it into the script, and the actors looked like they really were in the tropical African heat, glistening with sweat.
West also said the bonus of filming in the Savannah area was the help of a motivated and helpful film office and access to Savannah College of Art and Design's cameras and film students.'The Sacrament'
The film begins with three men - a fashion photographer, Patrick, and his two friends who are journalists working for a news agency called VICE. VICE specializes in a type of journalism called immersionism, in which reporters immerse themselves in a situation, focusing on the experience.
Patrick (Kentucker Audley), is concerned for his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz), a former addict, who has invited him out to visit her at a new clean living settlement/religious community abroad. The journalists Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) believe a cool story will come from the trip and follow their friend to get the behind-the-scenes look at a cult settlement.
The cult is led by a man the members refer to as Father, played by Jones, and of course, things go incredibly wrong for everyone involved.
West said he felt people looked at cult members as zombies rather than people - a stereotype he wanted to break with this film. He was successful. The beginning stages of the film show the journalists interviewing several cult members so the audience can see them as people searching for a higher meaning in life rather than mindless zealots blindly following a crazed leader.
Getting to know the cult members adds to the suspense of knowing that something really bad is going to happen. It creates a feeling of dread and an almost emotional appeal to ask the movie gods to step in and spare the innocent.
West said he set out to create something different in the horror genre. After the movie ended, several people in the audience mentioned they had never seen anything like "The Sacrament." I'm not sure I'm sold on that idea completely, because it felt a little like some of the other found footage films I've seen before, but there is something unique and hauntingly eerie about the role of Father and the power he has over so many seemingly intelligent adults.
West did succeed in making the audience look at Jonestown in a different light - it was more than just a bunch of people "drinking the Kool-Aid." It showed how quickly humans can go from believing a person is their savior to questioning authority and doing whatever it takes to protect their own lives.
Scary? Not really. Disturbing? Definitely yes.