The Movie Waffler New Release Review - THE SACRIFICE GAME | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - THE SACRIFICE GAME

The Sacrifice Game review
Violent cult members converge on a private girls' school during the Christmas break.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Jenn Wexler

Starring: Madison Baines, Georgia Acken, Mena Massoud, Olivia Scott Welch, Gus Kenworthy, Derek Johns, Laurent Pitre, Chloë Levine

The Sacrifice Game poster

Director Jenn Wexler drew acclaim with her low-budget slasher debut The Ranger and returns with some Christmas themed bloodshed with her second film, The Sacrifice Game. At first glance it appears to sit alongside movies like the '90s franchise entry Halloween: H20 and the 2014 Haley Bennett vehicle Kristy, in which students left behind at their school are menaced by murderous forces. It even shares the cult aspect of Kristy, but Wexler's film delivers a mid-movie twist that takes it into more fantastical territory.

The Sacrifice Game review

It's Christmas 1971 and the Blackvale school for girls is shutting down for the holidays. Left behind are two young pupils – mousy Samantha (Madison Baines) and Clara (Georgia Acken), a proto-goth who keeps to herself and is prone to cutting chunks out of her arm – and a kindly teacher, Rose (Chloe Levine), and her handyman boyfriend Jimmy (Gus Kenworthy). Initially Samantha and Clara are frosty to Rose's attempts to lift their spirits, but the three gradually bond over the course of Christmas Eve. Their fun ends with the arrival of four sadistic cult members planning to perform a sacrifice on the school grounds.

By this point we've already witnessed this quartet of killers in action. Wexler nods to the sort of grisly thrillers that played on the public's fear of cults in the early '70s in the wake of the Manson murders with some unflinching violence. She opens her film with a shocking scene in which the camera watches through the windows of a suburban home as a husband and wife are butchered inside, and we later see a priest and a cop fall foul of the gang's bloodlust. The mob in question is comprised of extroverted Prince lookalike Jude (Mena Massoud), his girlfriend Maisie (Olivia Scott Welch), nervy Doug (Laurent Pitre) and Grant (Derek Johns), a quiet and hulking Vietnam vet. They're just the sort of creeps you might find in something like Last House on the Left or its many drive-in imitators.

The Sacrifice Game review

Given the horrors we've witnessed, the tension is immediate once the cultists arrive at Blackvale. Things are made all the more unsettling by having Samantha and Clara played by very young actresses rather than the twentysomethings we usually find cast in these roles, especially when Jude begins to talk about the need to shed the blood of an innocent as part of their sacrifice.

We think we have this movie sussed, and we're on board with its thrills. It's a gritty grindhouse thriller along the lines of the 1985 Oxploitation classic Fortress or 1975's Trip with the Teacher, in which mild-mannered teachers are forced to defend their pupils from murderous maniacs, right? Wrong. Halfway through, Wexler and co-writer Sean Redlitz pull the rug out from under our expectations. It's a twist that will likely prove divisive as it shunts the film into a different genre.

The Sacrifice Game review

I have to say it's something of a whiplash. Having been fully on board with the simple but well-handled exploitation fare Wexler was serving up, I struggled to follow the movie in its new direction, which takes it into the realms of Young Adult fantasy. A major problem is that the power dynamics are shifted, which means we're left with nobody to really fear for, and it's difficult to empathise with the character now positioned as the central figure, given how we know what they've been responsible for.

The movie also suffers from an inconsistent tone. Much of the first half is dark and brooding, but there's also some knowing self-referential humour, like how a character comments on the cliché of horror movie characters having an encounter with an animal on the road as a "bad omen" (see Get Out, The Invitation and Talk to Me to name just three recent examples of this trope). This dilutes the established threat of the villains. In the movie's second half the grindhouse setup has been traded for something closer to The Witches of Eastwick. Some have praised this audacious about face but I found myself losing interest the further the film strayed into the territory of the fantastic and away from its more grounded roots.

The Sacrifice Game is on Shudder from December 8th.

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