One of the very best things about the horror genre is that it is always reinventing itself and telling new stories. It is horror that tells the tales of our current world and deals with the problems, fears, prejudices and paranoia of our culture. Sometimes these heartfelt gestures are too wrapped up in their own message to make any sense and sometimes they are delivered with precision. It is always a delight to come across a horror film that delivers suspense, dread, cringe worthy moments of gore and manages to lightly tread a topic without hitting you over the head with it. More simply put, I love a movie that entertains me and also makes me think.
Although Sacrament relies on a lot of horror movie cliches, it does it with panache and a winking eye. Written and directed by Shawn Ewert, this is his first feature length film, but it never feels like a "practice" movie. Sure, there are a few clunky moments, but nothing worth pointing out because they don't interrupt the flow of the film.
Ewert brings us the usual story of a group of young kids looking for a party who end up finding something they did not bargain for. Actually, this isn't just the usual bunch of kids, it's the holy grail of token young kids looking for trouble. We have the committed couple in love, the stoner, the party girl, the minority, the sassy girl and the girl next door. After a bang up intro involving a motorist and a stranded driver, we are introduced to this rag tag group after a night of partying.
Embarking on a road trip, the group gets stranded in the town of Middle Spring while they try to avoid driving directly into a storm. Middle Spring, Texas is a quintessential sleepy town with a tight knit community. A community that has some different ideas about how things are done and they do not appreciate this group of young kids coming in and soiling their perfect existence. So, our kids end up at a Bed and Breakfast that is run by a decidedly creepy older woman and her young,super strong and mostly silent son. In case this isn't sounding familiar, this is a classic Texas horror movie with small town ideals, outsiders and, everyone's favorite, cannibals!
With a couple of lovely nods to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Sacrament cuts it's own cloth in the Texas cannibal genre. (What is the deal with Texas and the consumption of meat?) This particular clan of cannibals does what they do based upon their religious principles. Led by a charismatic preacher, played with just the right mix of fire, brimstone and humor by Richard Houghton, with help from his son Brahm, an outstanding Joshua Simmons, this congregation is miraculously unspecific. Unspecific in the sense that no particular religion is ever called out in the film. Not a single one and this is such a wonderful touch because it allows you to accept them, simply, as religious. No one is going to feel the need to be defensive or offended because it isn't any one religion being taken to task.
As our group of sinners start doing drugs, drinking, fornicating and anything else that is not acceptable within the city limits of Middle Spring, we really get to know each of them enough to care when it's their turn on the chopping block. The town folk are exceptionally good at dividing and conquering this group, so it takes quite a while for them to realize that something isn't right.
The main focus is on our leads, Lee (Troy Ford) and Blake (Avery Pfeiffer) and they are extremely easy to invest in. Lee, the more responsible one, is played with a surprising level of emotional complexity from such a young actor and the easy rapport between Ford and Pfeiffer is so natural and casual that it makes it very easy to not make a big deal out of them being a same sex couple. However, I believe this to be one of the more special aspects of the movie. Yes, we have a same sex couple but, who cares? Both the full frontal male nudity and the entire relationship between Lee and Blake is treated in such a blase, everyday manner and I say this as a compliment. These things do not distract from the story; they're just a part of it the same way everything else is. Ewert has accomplished something wonderfully rare; a same sex couple in a movie that doesn't make a big deal about it, doesn't remind you of it every chance it gets and instead, allows this couple to own the story because they're a great couple. When the major climax descends upon our new favorite horror couple, the emotional maturity and restraint shown by Pfeiffer is beautiful. Every single person involved in this scene brought their A-game and you can feel the emotion rolling off of the screen.
There are quite a few visual treats in Sacrament. Matthew Ash, the visual effects master, really outdid himself on this film, especially with a certain handcuff scene and a really great scene of flesh being freshly flayed. Don't blink or you may miss the fact that these are real amputees awaiting flesh like hungry wolves and whatever you do, do not miss the cameos from Marilyn Burns and Ed Guinn. That's right, Texas' original final girl and everyone's favorite truck driver play an exceptionally lovely couple running the local gas station/restaurant/thrift store complete with token creepy kid. The real life friendship between these two is readily apparent and Ms. Burns plays her part with a wonderfully fun mix of southern charm and fierce shade throwing. Truly, these two are the perfect addition to this movie and so much fun to watch.
With a lot of performances coming from first timers and/or actors with an exceptionally short IMDb, I think you'll be surprised how rarely this is obvious. As with any independent film, or studio film for that matter, there are a few moments of less than stellar acting, but it's all forgivable. Never a fan of the old-timey style scenery passing by car windows while the passengers inside converse, this is my biggest complaint about the film. Overall, Sacrament is a truly special film that achieves everything it sets out to do and does it with such great style and class. Every minute of this movie was made with great care and love and all of that shines through.
To learn more about Sacrament and all of the lovely people who worked so hard to bring this awesome film to you, please visit the film's website here.