Home » ‘The Sacrifice Game’ is a Delightfully Chilly Festive Treat [Review]

‘The Sacrifice Game’ is a Delightfully Chilly Festive Treat [Review]

The Sacrifice Game, Jenn Wexler’s highly-anticipated follow-up to her gnarly punk rock slasher The Ranger, takes the overdone but still amusing “god forbid women have hobbies” meme to its least logical but most entertaining extreme. The first female character we meet is Maisie (Olivia Scott Welch) a bloodthirsty killer and gang-leader who, along with three besotted male companions (Derek Johns, Laurent Pitre, and co-executive producer Mena Massoud), descends upon the suburban home of a happy young couple just three days before Christmas and mercilessly butchers them as the festive lights twinkle around them. As for the other featured women, well, they’re slightly more complicated.

The Sacrifice Game takes place in 1971, in the days leading up to Christmas, with an ominous countdown nodding to Halloween in a neat touch that also escalates the growing tension as the big day grows closer (though it has little bearing on what actually happens). There are major Manson Family vibes as the mysterious group slowly walks up the driveway to kill these innocent people in cold blood. This opening sequence, which takes place indoors but is shot from the outside like we’re voyeurs looking in and are therefore complicit in the group’s nefarious activities, is bathed in moody red lighting, which later switches to bluer hues when the action is relocated to an isolated boarding school for girls.

Chloe Levine, Wexler’s energetic lead in The Ranger, plays well-meaning teacher Rose, whose attempts to make the festive season special for two lonely tweens left behind over the holidays endear her to us, if not them. It’s a wildly different role for Levine, whose smiley, fresh-faced demeanour lends itself well to a character who desperately wants to provide comfort to her young charges but isn’t quite experienced enough to know how to protect them when the going gets tough. Naturally, the two stories inevitably converge when the Christmas Killers, as they’re known in the local press, descend upon the school and start causing chaos. But things don’t exactly go to plan there either.

One of the strongest elements of Wexler’s film, the screenplay she wrote with Sean Redlitz, is how it wrong-foots us at essentially every turn. Typically, in these kinds of movies, the group will do some kind of satanic ritual, summon a demon, and instruct it to pick everybody else off one by one. Wexler takes her time, eking out the tension as the Christmas Killers circle Rose, Clara (newcomer Georgia Acken, making a huge impression with her Thora Birch by way of Linda Blair presence), and Samantha (a heartbreakingly open Madison Baines). It’s clear who they are of course, but the situation doesn’t escalate the way it’s expected to, especially when their ritual doesn’t work.

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There’s a nice thread regarding the folly of male ego via Massoud’s twisted Jude. The Aladdin star makes mincemeat of what could’ve been a one-note villain by imbuing Jude with just enough insecurity, particularly surrounding his relationship with Maisie, to ensure he’s not defined solely by his horrific crimes. Massoud steals every scene he’s in, but Welch, who impressed in Netflix’s otherwise entirely forgettable Fear Street trilogy, is more than a match for him. She has a nice rapport with Levine too, whose Rose is trying so hard despite this being the most miserable and horrifying situation two young girls could ever expect to find themselves in.

The Sacrifice Game boasts some impressive, and utterly convincing, gore with Wexler lingering on shots to give us the full effect. The chilly cinematography, by Alexandre Bussière, makes even the indoor sequences–many of which take place in an expansive grand hall–feel cold and confining to the extent that when one character runs out into the snow in their underwear, it’s almost a relief. As with The Ranger, the visuals are consistently strong, the colors eye-catching. Acken’s apple cheeks, dark hair, and pale complexion pop throughout but when she dons a black, frilly dress (Killstar should be taking notes for every goth who sees this movie and immediately covets it) it’s like the youngster is being anointed by the dark gods with her own unholy light.

Baines and Acken have a natural, easygoing chemistry and their impressive performances are put in even starker relief by their interactions with the adult actors as well as an early conversation with a fellow young performer whose line delivery leaves a lot to be desired. Child actors must balance between being precocious enough to stand out while also remaining down to earth and these two are great examples of how a smart director can coax performances out of them that feel both memorable and naturalistic. The Sacrifice Game is arguably about the power of female friendship but without the trio of lead performances at its dark heart, including Levine’s, it wouldn’t work.

Wexler’s movie doesn’t go at all where you’re anticipating it will, but the narrative unfolds in a satisfying manner that never feels like it’s trying too hard to be shocking either, which is sadly becoming more of an issue with modern horror movies. She and Redlitz stick the landing too (another problem that’s been cropping up in recent years), again without feeling the need to deliver a big “gotcha!” moment that is rarely ever earned by what’s preceded it anyway. Much like The Ranger, Wexler keeps things clear, concise, and female-focused, delivering a superbly chilly festive treat that avoids the typical cliches but still feels like the kind of movie you’ll want to revisit during the next holiday season.

Catch The Sacrifice Game streaming exclusively on Shudder from December 8, 2023

Director(s): Jenn Wexler
Writer(s): Jenn Wexler, Sean Redlitz
Stars: Mena Massoud, Olivia Scott Welch, Chloë Levine, Georgia Acken, Madison Baines
Release date: December 8, 2023 (Shudder)
Language: English
Run Time: 90 minutes

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Written by Joey Keogh
Slasher fanatic Joey Keogh has been writing since she could hold a pen, and watching horror movies even longer. Aside from making a little home for herself at Wicked Horror, Joey also writes for Birth.Movies.Death, The List, and Vague Visages among others. Her actual home boasts Halloween decorations all year round. Hello to Jason Isaacs.
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