If Ti West’s 2013 found footage The Sacrament was an undeclared fictionalisation of the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, then it is the mass suicides of 1993 and 1997 of Branch Davidian of Waco and the Heaven’s Gate cult of San Diego which director Phil Joanou sees most clearly when he pulls back The Veil.
It is twenty five years since Jim Jacobs (The Expanse’s Thomas Jane), a dynamic rock star of a reformist preacher, exhorted his followers to “push through the veil to eternal life,” even as the FBI stormed their remote encampment, guns drawn. The only survivor was the orphaned child found among the bodies who was given the name Sarah Hope by her rescuers.
With no idea who her parents were, Sarah (American Horror Story’s Lily Rabe) is approached by documentary filmmaker Maggie Price (Fantastic Four’s Jessica Alba) to tell her story. Reluctantly agreeing in hopes of finding some link to her past, on the road to the site of the massacre Maggie reveals that she and her camera operator brother Christian (Jack DeSena) also have a connection to the tragedy of Heaven’s Veil.
Their father who led the investigation into the cult later having taken his own life, it was Maggie who found him hanged in the garage. “We both lost our families because of this place. I need to know why.”
Arriving at the fenced-off compound, a memory surfaces within Sarah that “Jim’s special place” is beyond the lake, leading them further into the forest where they discover a dilapidated house. They find a body, decomposed, forgotten, untouched since the events of that day a quarter of a century before. They find canisters of film dating as far back as 1982 which record the escalating mania of Jacobs, the seer, the healer, the devotion of his followers.
What they also find is that their grip, Ed, missing along with the van which holds all their equipment, has crashed the van and been killed, his body found by sound editor Ann and gaffer Nick. What the others do not know is that perhaps recalling her childhood, perhaps hallucinating, Sarah is seeing ghostly figures around her.
Deep in the forest with no cell reception, some of the team wish to leave the site, find the police and report what they have found even if it is no longer an active crime scene, but Maggie demands that they stay, pointing out that it is too late to walk to the main road so they must stay the night.
While the supporting cast are fine in their inevitably expendable background roles, Rabe is exquisite in her growing sense of belonging even as everything falls apart around her and Jane is charismatic and terrifying in the blind dedication of Jacobs, but Alba’s character lacks shade in her fervent drive, mirroring but less interesting than that of Jacobs.
With the colour leached out to the extreme, leaving the picture drained and lifeless, former music video director Joanou manages to generate genuine atmosphere, even the apparently mundane scene of checking microphone feeds from around the house becoming something surprisingly creepy, but breaking the illusions are the reels of film, edited as though there had historically been multiple points of view yet apparently shot from a single static camera.
Surprisingly after an hour of escalating fear, writer Robert Ben Grant’s goal turns out to be something other than was indicated, less careful stealth than a bloody last man (or woman) standing, but the whole is better than might have been assumed given the generic premise and vastly superior to the similarly inspired but differently executed Sacrament.