Thursday, June 5, 2014


One of the joys of watching new movies is to see a journeyman performer absolutely steal the show, as  Gene Jones does in The Sacrament.  Not only does he steal it, he runs off with it and practically dances in the end zone.

Jones plays Father, a self-styled preacher-guru who has established Eden Parish, a church community in a hidden jungle location. An American documentary team travels there to profile him, but once there, they realize that all is not as pleasant as they've been lead to believe. Not only are there armed guards surrounding the place, but a little girl gives one of the newsmen a note that simply reads, "Help us." Father, meanwhile, holds court, offering slippery bromides about freedom and unity, always looking a little too self-satisfied to be trustworthy. Jones gives a knockout performance. Somehow, with a talent that must be possessed by all cult leaders,  he's able to speak to a crowd and make it seem like he's whispering in your ear. Where has Gene Jones been?

He's an older man, a Louisiana native in his late 60s. According to the Internet Movie Database, Jones  doesn't have a big pile of movie credits. He's learned his craft by appearing in plays, including some off-Broadway work. Although Jones has a few notable appearances - he provided some voice work for Tim Burns' memorable Civil War documentary in 1990, and landed in the Coen brothers' No Country For Old Men, playing the the gas station attendant in the memorable "coin toss" scene - he seems to have started working regularly in movies only during the past year or so. He has a few more coming up, a couple of indy horror movies, and what looks like a dark Christmas comedy with Robin Williams. I hope The Sacrament earns him some attention.

The rest of the movie doesn't quite match Jones' work.  It's an uninspired knockoff of the 1978 Jonestown massacre, done in a found footage, fake documentary style. Director/writer Ti West has some luck in the first half, creating an eerie atmosphere.  The Eden Parish compound looks right, and aside from the unctuous newsmen (why are the majority of young male actors so effete?) the movie pumps along nicely. Surprisingly, it's in the supposed climax where things get dull.  We all know how Jonestown ended, so when this movie follows suite, there's not much to get worked up about. Whether the documentary crew escapes or not is, I suppose, the reason we're supposed to care, but they're such stick figures that losing them to Father's madness wouldn't have bothered me much.

Still, there's a 12 minute scene at the center of the movie that has stayed with me. It starts with the thundering applause that greets Father as he makes his way towards the Eden Parish stage for a service. I loved the way he ambles up to the microphone to speak to his flock, and the way he handles an interview with the doc team. It's one of my favorite moments in a movie this year, particularly in the way Father absorbs and revels in the excitement of his minions. I'd like to think it represents the arrival of not only Father, but of Gene Jones, who will undoubtedly get his share of applause in the years to come.

What is it with horror movie villains wearing masks? I understand that it's a tradition dating back to at least the silent film era - Erik the phantom wore a mask as he terrorized the Paris opera, and Jason and Michael Myers wore their famous masks, and the Saw guy wore an interesting mask, as did the killer in Scream.  My favorite mask belonged to the killer in The Town that Dreaded Sundown - just a plain canvas sack over the head with eye-holes cut out. The bad guys are wearing masks more frequently in the past year or two. I've seen sheep masks, goat masks, and others. In these recent movies, I remember the masks, but not the stories. 

In Torment, there's a makeshift family of psychopaths who wear masks made from the heads of giant stuffed animals. The head of the family slips a giant mouse face over his own, and walks around with this giant mouse head for the entire movie. He takes it off once, and we're supposed to gather that he has a badly scarred face. Who can tell for sure? The cinematography is so murky that we can't tell what's going on most of the time. 

The psychopaths get these stuffed animal heads from a little boy who has traveled with his dad and stepmother to a summer home in the woods. It seems the psychos want the little boy for their own ersatz family, so they kidnap him. They torture the dad for a while, and torment the stepmother.  But why did they cut the heads from the kid's stuffed animal collection and turn the heads into masks? Did they do it so the boy would feel more comfortable around them?  And what sort of kid collects giant stuffed animals, anyway? 

There's a vague plot about the kid missing his real mother and not liking his stepmother, but this just makes the movie's 80 minutes drag on. It's one of those stories where the father calls his son "boss," and has "heart to heart" conversations with the kid on a swing set, where the dad says, 'I miss mommy as much as you do.' By then you'll be rooting for the guy with the mouse head. (This 'normal' family is so awful that the first time we see them, they are in their car having a contest to see who can scream the loudest. I'm serious.)

There's some blood and violence, but not too much. The suspense is hackneyed, with a lot people running through woods and falling down. The stepmother actually steps on a nail at one point, injuring her foot so she'll have to limp around and be easier to catch. The kid acts like a real piece of shit until he's scared, and then he's suddenly supposed to be vulnerable. The dad is tied to a chair and forced to tell his son that he doesn't love him. This, of course, makes the kid want to live with the crazy mouse family. 

There's not much more to report. If you like the idea of a guy with a giant mouse head stalking around while carrying a meat cleaver, this is the one you've been waiting for.

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