Joe Swanberg

Fantastic Fest Day 2

Ti West is a master of methodical pacing, and his stories unfold at a precisely measured clip. “The Sacrament,” his latest film, is no exception, building ominously before taking a horrifying turn, and while it’s far from West’s most traditionally scary film, it’s easily his most accomplished.

Like many other films at this year’s festival, “The Sacrament” is a found footage piece, documenting a VICE crew’s infiltration of a cult compound. Sam (AJ Bowen) is incorrigibly inquisitive, slowly starting to understand the appeal of the compound, and his cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) is a lot slower to warm up to its charms. Amy Seimetz plays Caroline, the sister of their friend Patrick (Kentucker Audley) and their ticket into the compound, which is led by a charismatic enigma named Father (Gene Jones).

Ti West plucked Jones from a bit part on FX’s “Louie,” instantly recognizing him as the man for the role, and Jones tears into West’s script, playing Father with equally reassuring and chilling notes. Father is a grandstander, using buzzwords and mythmaking to manipulate his followers. It’s an outstanding performance from Jones, and one that anchors the film as things spiral into a disturbing climax.

AJ Bowen is solid here, helplessly curious and empathetic, and while Joe Swanberg’s role as the cameraman means he stays off-screen for the most part, he makes the most of his limited screentime. Amy Seimetz gives a magnetically daffy performance, maintaining a gentle warmth even as she’s performing some heinous acts in the film’s finale.

There’s a clear tipping point in “The Sacrament,” a moment when things take a decided turn towards the sinister, and it’s a perfectly subtle, chilling moment that pulls back the curtains on the compound. “The Sacrament” doesn’t have a ton of scares in the traditional sense, lacking any ghosts, zombie, or vampires, which makes its relentless finale all the more unpleasant. West stages a climax that’s aggressively disturbing, all the more so because it plays out in broad daylight, making for a hugely intense experience.

It bears to mention that, while “The Sacrament” is riveting, taut, and bluntly horrific, its approach to some familiar subject matter is in fairly bad taste, trivializing some very real, very terrible events in a fairly flippant manner. A moody score, unflinching approach, and great performances go a long way towards making the film as gripping and, yes, entertaining, as it is, but its misguided approach gives the film an undeniably ugly bent that’s hard to shake once the credits roll.

Among the other films that played Fantastic Fest yesterday, “Detective Downs”, a film about a PI afflicted with Downs Syndrome, is charming and surprisingly tactful. While it’s a bit overlong, the film’s original concept, strong performances, and a jazzy, memorable score keep it from dragging too much.

“A Field in England,” on the other hand, practically prides itself on its glacial pacing. The story of five men wandering a field in England, eating mushrooms and looking for treasure, plays like a Lars von Trier movie without any compelling parts. While there are excellent elements, especially the screenplay’s relatable, crackling dialogue, the stunning black & white photography, and a rhythmic score, “A Field in England” is mostly interminable nonsense, stretching 30 minutes of story out to excruciating length.

“We Are What We Are,” a remake of a Spanish film that played Fantastic Fest back in 2010, is the rare rehash that improves on its predecessor. In a gender reversal from the original, a family is left in the lurch after its matriarch dies, and eldest daughter Rose (Julia Garner) must step forward to continue the family’s tradition of ritualistic cannibalism. “We Are What We Are” may be a bit dour for the midnight slot, but it’s a fantastically moody work, beating the original for ambition, scope, and commitment to its premise, and featuring roundly solid performances. This Southern Gothic plays a delicate tonal game, and by the time it escalates to an absolutely insane finale, it’s easy to come along for the ride.

“The Sacrament” screens again Monday 9/23 at 4:50.

“Detective Downs” screens again Wednesday 9/25 at 5:45.

“A Field in England” screens again Wednesday 9/25 at 5:00.

“We Are What We Are” screens again Tuesday 9/24 at 11:45.

 

Kate Lyn Sheil dons a mysterious mask in Ti West’s segment of “V/H/S.” In this movie, hers is the most character centered segment of six short films. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

 

Horror films have to choose a style and stick with it. It is tough to navigate between the jump scares of slasher lore, the slow burn or the haunted house jamboree, but “V/H/S” makes full use of its anthology format, combining the voices of several budding horror directors in an eclectic, varied and effective collection of short horror films that will terrify you on multiple levels.

Several of the half-dozen directors of “V/H/S” have worked in horror before, but Adam Wingard is perhaps the most promising filmmaker in the group. However, he’s given the shortest shrift here, relegated to directing the film’s connective tissue. The film features a group of miscreants hired to break into a house to procure a videotape. Instead, they find a dead body and numerous stacks of cassettes, leaving them to sift through the tapes, each of which contains a different director’s take on found-footage horror. While this segment is absolutely necessary for “V/H/S” to work, and occasionally evokes a lo-fi “Clockwork Orange” with its enthusiastic depiction of thuggish shenanigans, it lacks Wingard’s directorial stamp.

While Wingard fails to bring anything distinctive to the film’s framework, directors like Ti West and David Bruckner are well within their wheelhouse here.

Bruckner’s feature debut was in another anthology, zombie thriller “The Signal,” and his segment here features a group of college guys who hit the town with a camera hidden in a pair of glasses and less-than-honorable intentions. Both Bruckner’s and Wingard’s VHS-shot openings are distractingly ugly and tough to watch, and if all found-footage films looked this terrible, the genre would be dead in the water. However, their commitment to their premise is admirable, and Bruckner’s short rewards those that stick with it with a bloody, satisfying climax.

West is also playing in familiar territory here, and takes a more traditional approach to found footage, simply sampling from the camcorder of a vacationing couple played by Joe Swanberg and Sophia Takal. West has practically mastered the slow burn by now, and squeezes in scares that are chilling in their simplicity alongside predictably strong character work. He even manages to get a decent performance out of Swanberg, a consistently irritating screen presence, and “V/H/S” finds West effortlessly doing what he does best on a much smaller scale.

Meanwhile, Swanberg directs his own addition to the film, a ghost story told through a long-distance couple’s Skype interactions. His short has easily the film’s most nerve-wracking scares, and its most relatable character work, helped along by the adorable Helen Rogers. Using Skype proves to be an innovative choice, making for the film’s most spine-chilling moments and a refreshing change of pace for Swanberg.

Glenn McQuaid wins for the most creative application of the film’s premise. His tale of a camping trip led astray stands out for its plentiful gore and the audacity of his villain, a monster that can only be seen in the playback errors of the VHS tape. However, the best thing about “V/H/S” is its final segment. The Halloween-set segment follows a group of friends who wander into an empty house in search of a party. Everything is off, ever so subtly, until they stumble upon something horrible in the attic, and then “V/H/S” flies off the hinges, tossing off scares left and right in one of the most entertaining sustained horror sequences in recent memory. It’s a rollicking, excellent finale to the film.

Printed on Thursday, December 4th, 2012 as: Directors pool horror preferences