On a road trip to the Texan coast, seven friends find themselves stranded in the small southern town of Middle Spring. Initially welcoming, the deeply religious townsfolk take exception to the friends’ modern ways and set about including them in the main course of their barbeque festival.
Grindhouse throwbacks are irritatingly fashionable these days, generally taking the form of deliberately ropey and uninspired retreads with added-on film grain or ultra-gory, tongue-in-cheek homages that wink relentlessly at the viewer. The feature debut of director Shawn Ewart, Sacrament treads neither of these paths and yet seethes with the dangerous, uneasy illicitness of the grindhouse era’s nastier trends with almost accidental ease. While the film does not conceal its influences (the cast includes the late Marilyn Burns as well as Ed Guinn, the truck driver who rescued her in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), it also refuses to pander desperately to them.
The first victim of the God-fearing folk of Middle Spring (who, through repeated escapes lasts deep into the film but whose story disconcertingly never crosses that of the main group) awakes in chains after a blow to the head in a house with red walls and scattered human remains that is strongly reminiscent of the Texas Chain Saw house. Some of the more extreme gore apes that of Herschell Gordon Lewis, and even the story itself fits into the 2000 Maniacs! mold. Then we have the Southern Gothic sensibilities, muddy aesthetic and ultra-skewed camera angles which all evoke the work of Texan exploitation auteur S.F. Brownrigg. These are all observations however; Sacrament’s exploitation flavour feels unforced and organic, and is part of what is in other ways a thoroughly modern film. The believable diversity of the central group of friends serves to highlight the adherence to mainstream sexual and bodily ‘norms’ of virtually all modern cinema, foregrounding its central gay couple Lee and Blake and curvy tattooed girl Lorri. Even indie cinema all-too-often uses homosexuality or being overweight as character devices, rarely featuring characters who are not ‘screen pretty’ without reference to the fact. Sacrament does not judge its characters in this way, they simply are.
The performances are a particularly mixed bag. With most of the cast having but one or two acting credits to their names there are, truth be told, some pretty bad ones. Curiously though, the dodgier acting sits well within the free-flowing dialogue scenes and contributes to a slightly askew, dreamy tone that permeates the film. The bad acting is just the right kind of bad, adding to a weirdness that is accentuated with shots that are held just that little too long. In what may have been her last film role however, Marilyn Burns adds a touch of class, despite just a few minutes of screen time. Performances aside, we also get some nonsensical character motivations, plot strands that go nowhere and a narrative that amounts to little more than a succession of scenes in which the friends run afoul of the town’s religious nuts but again, these elements all add to a film that exists within a world built of its own rules. There’s also an oddly objective, distanced feel.
Nudity is frequent but rarely sexualised and the violence comes and goes with little fanfare or impact, with many stabs and blows occurring offscreen, and is all the more visceral and disturbing for it. The violence is clumsy and raw, sometimes bringing to mind the work of renegade director Jim van Bebber (Deadbeat at Dawn, The Manson Family).
The Bible Belt fundamentalist crazies of Sacrament are of the type depicted in Red State or The Last Exorcism, and are perhaps understandable as modern horror villains, with America’s Religious Right forever on the march, and the Westboro Baptists a well-publicised source of unadulterated evil. With Sacrament’s townspeople focused on the ‘unholy’ activities of the out-of-towners, as well as a turnaround of one of the main antagonists near the end, the film feels less anti-religion than anti-intolerance however.
Sacrament perhaps requires a different viewing eye to most modern horror, and is going to split opinion massively. It will be an easy target for negative reviews, and for many will be too low-budget and too raw. There’s a lo-fi quality to the violence, many scenes are underlit and some even subject to audio hiss but there’s just something about this film; an undeniable and uncontrived quality that holds the eye and enthrals all the way to the undercooked finale. The grubby aesthetic adds a skewed beauty not unlike that of Texas Chain Saw or Last House on the Left, with a sweaty Southern charm which does not feel oversold.
To different viewers, Sacrament will either be painfully bad or cause to rejoice. For this one, it is very much the latter. It does not fall into the ‘so bad it’s good’ camp in any kind of postmodern, knowing fashion. It’s best appreciated in the same way as the better cheapos from the grindhouse era – you overlook any perceived shortcomings in favour of admiring the scope and fearlessness of the filmmaking. The sheer rawness of Sacrament feels illicit and thrilling, making for a viewing experience unlike that of anything made in a long time. This is no cynical exploitation throwback, but a genuine modern equivalent of that era’s true spirit. If you fall into the right kind of audience bracket, you’ll fucking love it.
Words: Kevan Farrow