Wednesday 30 October 2019

Cult Cinema #18: The Atrocity Tour, Part 2

The Sacrament (2013)

I hated this film. I hated it so much that I went back and watched it a second time because I wanted to be sure I didn't have it wrong, to check that it really was as horrible as I thought it was, and that it actually deserved my loathing. And also, I suppose, to figure out why I hated it, what it was about this movie that upset me so much. I mean, The Sacrament is viscerally and graphically unpleasant, but it is the business of a certain sort of horror movie to be viscerally and graphically unpleasant. But that's not it. It's how the visceral and graphic unpleasantness is anchored, how it's framed.

I hated this film. I will spoil it, but what is there to spoil? Its story has already been public domain for a long time.

[A sidebar, for the sake of context]

On November 18th 1978, the charismatic but paranoid leader of The People's Temple, Reverend Jim Jones, spooked by a visit from US Congressman Leo Ryan to "Jonestown", his compound near Kaituma, Guyana, instigated the deaths of over 900 adults and children. Ryan had come with little fanfare; his was purely an investigatory visit. But his presence caused first one and then dozens of People's Temple members to attempt to defect. Jones panicked and ordered Ryan and his party gunned down as they attempted to get on their plane, and then instructed his followers to kill themselves, by drinking soft drinks laced with cyanide – famously including but not limited to Kool-Aid, a mark the brand has never been able to shake. Pop culture has traditionally imagined Jones's followers as happily obeying their leader's instruction and, well, freely drinking the Kool-Aid. But consider: those who tried to leave the tent while Jones was ordering the poison to be handed out were shot. And over 300 of the dead were children, many of them infants who were injected directly with cyanide. The followers of the People's Temple might have been loyal to Jones, but human loyalty only extends so far. As Ryan's assistant and eyewitness Jackie Speier (who herself survived five bullets at point blank range while escaping) insists:
The news at the time and the history lessons to follow usually failed to mention that a number of the Peoples Temple members were shot, several in the field between the pavilion and the jungle, clearly trying to escape. Others who presumably refused to “drink the Kool-Aid” (a misguided phrase I very much wish could be scrubbed from our conversations and lexicon), were injected with cyanide and other poisons. There were piles of used syringes left at the scene. An eyewitness who managed to escape the massacre described how “people who did not co-operate were injected with poison where they sat or were held down and injected with poison.” The precise numbers and causes of death could never be confirmed, but this was not a mass suicide. It was a mass murder. (Jackie Speier, Undaunted: Surviving Jonestown, Summoning Courage and Fighting Back, New York 2018, p71-2, emphasis mine)

[Sidebar ends]

The Sacrament, directed by House of the Devil director Ti West but with producer Eli Roth’s name prominently displayed on the publicity, is a "found footage" movie. Jake, Sam and Patrick (Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen and Kentucker Audley) work for (real) Web news outlet VICE Media. Patrick's sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz, the lead in Upstream Colour, and who consequently I'll forgive anything) had fallen off the map but is now living in a project, here called "Eden Parish", somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. The three guys take their filming equipment and go to document what happens. Everything looks fine to begin with. The followers seem happy, and the commune is presented to the journalists as an escape from America's inequality, greed and injustice.

A filmed interview with the leader, who everyone calls Father (Gene Jones), is a bit odd, but it's only when the men meet Sarah (Kate Lyn Sheil), someone who has not been allowed to speak to them, that they gain the apprehension that something is very wrong. She gets her daughter (who is mute because of course she is) to pass them a note after Sam interviews Father, asking for help. By the morning a small crowd of people are asking to leave too. Father attempts to murder the journalists and forces his followers to drink poison. Some have to be forced, but many do. It dissolves into bloody chaos. The deaths of the followers are shown as graphically as possible. Sarah, driven to despair, slices her child's throat open with a straight razor. Sam and Jake escape but Patrick is force fed the poison by his own sister. Father shoots himself. Caroline sets herself on fire. A card at the end tells us that 167 people died here.

It's not Jonestown. I mean, it's explicitly, diegetically not Jonestown. Father is not Jim Jones, the setting is not Guyana, the date is 2013 rather than 1978, and the count of the dead is a fraction of the list of fatalities at Jonestown (presumably because Jonestown's fatalities were so many that it would seem absurd). But while not being Jonestown is the film's best hope for a get out clause, it's also exactly what makes The Sacrament so horribly obnoxious.
Because it's not Jonestown. And at the same time it pretty fucking clearly is. Cult compound in Africa, check. Cult founded by charismatic and avuncular preacher who gets called Father by his followers and who speaks prophetically against racism and economic inequality, check. Followers in large part include the elderly and children, and a significant proportion of people of colour, check Armed guards, check. Visitors from outside who bring unexpected companions, check. Interviews with chosen followers, check. Panic caused by threat of mass exodus, check. Death squad sent to air strip, check. Poisoned kool-aid, check. Murdered babies, check. There are more points of similarity than even these, but these are the main ones.

But what is crucially absent is context. And the problem is that this story arc is the exact arc of a hideous and tragic act of violence that really happened, and you can't transpose the context of a story like this and expect it still to make sense. Jim Jones panicked and instigated a massacre of his own followers because he'd been paranoid about the government coming for him for ages. And then the government, in the shape of a Congressional investigation, came. A man with clout. The sort of man, in the 70s, who anyone would reasonably expect Uncle Sam would be sending helicopters full of napalm after. A man with an entourage.

Three guys from VICE Media looking for the sister of one of them after being invited to come isn't the same thing. While the US Government is arguably the most belligerent and imperialist it's ever been right now, things don't work exactly like they did in the 70s. It's just not reasonable to assume that a weird news story and a bunch of people jumping ship is going to mean death and destruction.
Jones preyed – although he'd never have admitted to anyone, even himself, that this was what he did – on poor people, elderly people, people in minorities. But his church came from somewhere. It had been operating for many years by the time he chose to move to Guyana and then he did that because of government interference in his operation. More than that, the suicide/massacre only makes sense if you know that Jones, who had started out as a passionate and charismatic advocate for progressive issues, had been getting stranger and stranger for a long time now. He had been running suicide drills for months – even at one point forcing everyone to drink perfectly harmless soft drinks after telling them the drinks were poisoned – and that this was in fact one of the reasons so many people wanted out.

Cult suicides have happened, but they don't work like the one in The Sacrament. Take the case of Marshall Applewhite and his followers, the Heaven's Gate group, who took their lives in March 1997. Crucially, Applewhite was absolutely sincere (sincere enough to submit himself to elective castration in fact) but even so, while he had had hundreds of followers, only 38 stuck around to join the "Away Team".

Charisma is not universal. It never works on everyone and it does not even consistently work on the people who are inclined to it. And when a cult leader's charisma drives people to commit acts of horrific violence, it's important to remember all the people who don't do it. Marshall Applewhite had literally hundreds of people who were in, up until the point where they grokked the "castration and suicide" part and then had serious second thoughts. Manson's Helter Skelter was initiated by the holdouts, the ones who stuck around, not the other people, the ones who joined and didn't stay – the Tate-LaBianca murders were committed by only four (or even, technically, three) of his followers. And Jones forced his followers to drink at gunpoint, after he had spent several hours walking around on the ground level failing to persuade people not to leave. All of these things make a sort of sense. Inasmuch as even authorities on the subject fall into the trap of saying "it is inexplicable how so many people can do these things", it is always more explicable in the light of how many more people – and specifically I mean people in the same communities – don't or won't, or at least won't until someone points a rifle at them.
The Sacrament, importantly, doesn't make this sort of sense. In The Sacrament, we don't have that background. We just have a parade of horrors, unmoored from history and context. We don’t have a couple of decades of growth, we don't have a man who started out as the founder of Indianapolis's first multiracial congregation and who then collapsed into narcissism and paranoia, we don't have the attention of the United States government. And we don’t have an entire community terrorised and beaten down by its leader over a period of months that still tries to turn on him en masse only to be murdered. We just have the part of the story with the panic and killing, and without the background, none of it makes the slightest bit of sense. Because without that context, people just don’t do this stuff. It doesn’t work that way. Cults don’t work that way. And all that’s left is a movie that shows a real historical event, without its anchor, reduced to a glut of reasonless carnage.

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