This Friday horror auteur Ti West will release his latest film in limited release with the found-footage film The Sacrament. I’ve seen the film through VOD, and while it earned its justifiable detractors, I find it a fitting entry into his filmography. With that in mind it’s relevant to look back at some of his recent filmography to identify what makes him so unique of a horror filmmaker and why The Sacrament succeeds on his terms.
Alfred Hitchcock once famously stated, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” West seems to understand the value of this logic with his films more than most modern horror filmmakers do. West understands genre tropes and conventions, and does his best to maneuver away from them. He knows an audience is watching the film, and that they have been trained over the years what to expect, and when to jump. Throughout West’s films, he deviates from the standard scares and jumps, opting for a slow burn of terror and tension.
Consider his 2009 film The House of the Devil. He invites you into the aesthetic feel of the 70s and 80s horror films by filming it as if it’s made in that time period. The 16mm film transports the audience back in time, and gives them an inclination of what to expect. The score by Jeff Grace compliments the illusion, with haunting and atmospheric piano chords and violins. I once showed the film to a friend, and until I told him otherwise he believed the movie was made in the 80s. The film is 90 minutes, but does very little to excite in the first 75 minutes. Rather than creating something dull, the film does the exact opposite. It creates a pot of tension that slowly heats up the audience, so that when the final 15 terrifying minutes come about the audience can barely handle it. It constantly leads up to moments you ready yourself to jump at, only for the moment to just lie there mocking you for expecting something. Consider scenes such as when Samantha comes so close to opening an ominous door and doesn’t, but the camera reveals a dead sacrificed family beyond the door. Had she opened it, you would have your jump scare as she screams. Because he doesn’t allow that moment to happen, he keys up the tension even more.
The House of the Devil set the mark for how West would go about the rest of his career by adopting certain subgenres to his subvertive techniques. In both of his follow ups The Innkeepers and his addition to the horror anthology V/H/S, he applies a similar type of slow burn, never letting up for a cheap scare. Nothing jumps out at the audience on the screen, because the payoff is only as good as the setup. He spends both of these films building up tension so the final act has earned all the chances to be terrifying. With The Innkeepers, he spends most of the film just being suspicious about the possibility of the hotel being haunted, holding out on confirmation until absolutely necessary. In his V/H/S installment, he similarly gives off the appearance of something bad about to happen, but waiting until the very end to allow it to happen.
With The Sacrament, he takes a lot of what he has done with his past films, but applies it to the found-footage feature. He knows his subgenres, so he knows how found footage films tend to end: The person holding the camera dies, leaving the footage unedited and to be “found”. Rather then allowing this to be a hindrance to telling the story, West embraces this expectation by letting you know this footage has been edited and turning it into a faux documentary/found footage hybrid. Because of the edited footage he adds tension to every twist and turn in the film, because the audience is wondering just how his characters are going to get this footage out. In classic West fashion, he doesn’t indulge in explosive and loud scares. It’s all atmosphere with him. You spend the whole film dangling between possibility and confirmation that something is wrong with this community. When he does drop the confirmation, you’ve been sucked into the atmosphere for the last 70 minutes, allowing him to then play out his insane finale.
The film certainly has its talking points for detractors. Does it exploit the tragedy of The Jonestown Massacre without even acknowledging its existence? You’d be right in thinking so, but that doesn’t wholly determine whether or not West has succeeded with this film. What makes the film work is that West understands the tropes and expectations within this genre, and subtly but surely subverts them throughout the runtime resulting in a truly terrifying experience. His next film is going to be a Western titled In a Valley of Violence starring Ethan Hawke and John Travolta. With his knowledge of genre archetypes, it will be interesting to see how he reinvents the Western.