Judge Gordon Sullivan keeps growth charts for indie directors, but they all stay the same height.
Some places are better left alone.
One of the strange pleasures of DVD reviewing is watching independent directors grow. Sure, everyone is watching out for the latest from somebody like Martin Scorsese and plugging it into his body of work. Much fewer people are doing that for the dozens, if not hundreds, of indie-auteurs out there releasing direct-to-DVD features. Part of that is down to the sheer number of DTV features out there; I've only seen a second or third film from a handful of directors in the indie world. One of them is Jose Cassella. His Second Coming was a solid little thriller shot in my home state of Florida, and it showed a lot of promise. Although The Sacred isn't the home run I'd like, it does build on the promise of Second Coming by offering up a tale of students in peril with a solid twist.
Facts of the Case
There's a tribe of Native Americans in Florida who have a sacred place where they take people for judgment. When a small group of students go there for a folklore project, they get more than they bargained for.
The Sacred looks and acts like a typical backwoods slasher. Roughly the first half introduces us to a group of young students as they trek to the remote swamps of Florida in search of Native American artifacts and locations. Because the film opens in the remote past as some Native Americans are mysteriously killed, we know these kids are headed straight to danger. The characters are all pretty stock types, from the rich guy to the shy "final girl." Then, about halfway through the film, we discover this isn't just another "there's a mysterious force in the woods" movie like The Evil Dead. No, The Sacred is influenced by the recent post-Saw/Cube idea of throwing a bunch of guilty people together to see what happens. That's the "twist" that The Sacred throws out halfway through; suddenly we realize this Native American land really was used for judgment, and not of the courthouse variety. The place has a habit of punishing the guilty, and it appears that everybody is guilty of something.
This combo—of the typical backwoods slasher and the "figure out who's guilty" flick—is the best thing about The Sacred. After the opening flashback, we're set up to expect trouble for our intrepid band of social scientists. Naturally, we expect that they'll be killed off one by one, but when we learn that they're being menaced because of the sins of their past it gives the film an edge. Then, rather than wondering who's going to be killed next, the audience can spend the last half of the film trying to guess the protagonists' transgressions.
Despite the relative success of its central "twist," The Sacred is not entirely successful as a film. Although I like where the plot ends up, it takes its own sweet time getting there. Aside from the opening kills, there isn't much action for the first 45 minutes. Instead, we get a lot of talk as the characters are introduced and the setting established. This wouldn't be so bad if the characters were the kind we could care about, but for the most part they're generic. That means a good chunk of the film is taken up by things that aren't terribly exciting.
The other major problem with The Sacred—and it was a pretty big problem for Second Coming as well—is the lack of horrifying content. The Sacred feels like it could run on network TV with only a few small cuts. I can understand how a director might want to differentiate his product in the age of so-called "torture porn" by relying on old school thrills and chills. That's a commendable goal, but the backwoods slasher is not the go-to genre for that kind of effort. No, when fans put in a film like The Sacred, they want serious gore and maybe a bit of nudity. The Sacred delivers on neither count. The kills, when they come, are pretty good, but they don't happen consistently enough satisfy fans looking for gore.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the film's problems, this DVD is largely satisfying. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is as good-looking as you can expect from a feature of this budget. The director, when not director, is a cinematographer, and it's obvious he pours a lot of attention into the way this film is shot. That attention shows in the loving shots of Florida's landscapes, and the detail in these sequences is pretty impressive. Some of the darker scenes lack detail, but given the budget that's not surprising. No serious compression artifacts mar the feature, and this is probably as good as a low-budget film can be expected to look. The 5.1 surround audio track is a bit of overkill. Though dialogue is clean and clear from the center channel don't expect too much in the way of surround involvement.
Extras start with a commentary featuring Cassella and producer Sharon Reed. The pair discusses the challenges of shooting an indie film in Florida and various technical aspects of its production. A second commentary includes the actors Jessica Blackmore, David Mackey, and Ryan Marsico. Early on someone says it will be less like a commentary and more like an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000—they're absolutely right. The group spends a bit of time talking about the film and its production, but often as not they're sharing little stories about the difficulties in making an indie production. It's a bit slapdash to be consistently interesting, though fans of the film will enjoy some of the stories. We also get a behind-the-scenes featurette that runs 20 minutes, and a blooper reel. A final bonus is the director's short "Mina."
The Sacred shows that director Jose Cassella is growing as a filmmaker. It's a solid genre effort, even if fans would probably prefer that the film have a few more kills and gore. The DVD itself is strong for an indie horror flick, with a good presentation and enough extras to satisfy the curious. Probably worth a rental for genre fans, but a bit too slow for the general population.
Not really sacred, but also not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Osiris Entertainment
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