Credit: Fantasia International Film Festival
by Jake Pitre Featured Film Streaming Scene

The Sacrifice Game — Jenn Wexler [Fantasia Fest ’23 Review]

December 6, 2023

The words “A Shudder Original” don’t exactly convey a distinct meaning — not yet. While Shudder has released dozens of films, the platform is rather indiscriminate as a programmer, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It simply means that you don’t know what you’re going to get. Jenn Wexler’s The Sacrifice Game falls into this kind of machinic genre assemblage, yet it manages to stand out by shaping into something achingly cute and, at times, unexpected. Set in a girls’ Catholic school in the 1970s, the film is clearly inspired by the Manson murders. A group of killers breaks into the school over Christmas break in order to release a demon, and only Samantha (Madison Baines), Clara (newcomer Georgia Acken), and teacher Rose (Chloë Levine) are left in the school for the holidays.  They alone must face off against this group, led by Jude (Mena Massoud, the former live-action Aladdin clearly playing against type and proving quite funny and occasionally menacing in his latest role). If nothing else, The Sacrifice Game is an achievement in casting, as everyone seems very clear on the film they are making — so often a problem with these sorts of movies — and what their position within the ensemble entails. Filmed in the Oka Abbey outside Montreal, there’s an intense, eerie atmosphere to the abandoned environment, naturally accentuated by the production design and set decoration, but also originating from the location’s aura — the filmmakers claim several unexplained hauntings took place during production.

This mixture of Black Christmas, The Strangers, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and Helter Skelter isn’t afraid to tout its homages proudly, and Wexler and her team have the wit and artistry necessary to overcome these easy comparisons or accusations of mere derivation. The Sacrifice Game upends expectations in the third act, cleverly exploiting the audience’s awareness of horror tropes to push for a narrative more in line with what the characters, particularly Samantha and Clara, seem to demand. One may assume them both to be socially awkward misfits unable to fit in with the rest of the girls, but the pair reveal much more depth and eccentricity as the film progresses; Baines and Acken are certainly up to this task — Acken in particular, who gets an “And Introducing” credit and thrives in what turns out to be an incredibly tricky role to pull off.

As with any horror-comedy, a number of the jokes don’t land as intended, going too broad when the script should be more trusting of its crowd, particularly since it does exactly that when it comes to genre motifs. Wexler also struggles at times to balance her movie’s divergent tones, which may be inevitable when a screenplay ambitiously attempts to bring together so many styles, influences, and aesthetics in the hope that it coheres into something all its own. The Sacrifice Game almost gets there, even despite coming up short of such lofty goals, and succeeds enough on its own pleasurable merits. It may not reinvent the horror-comedy wheel, but The Sacrifice Game packs plenty of punch, especially near its denouement, and is a worthy addition to any streaming library.

DIRECTOR: Jenn Wexler;  CAST: Mena Massoud, Olivia Scott Welch, Gus Kenworthy, Madison Baines;  DISTRIBUTOR: Shudder;  STREAMING: December 8;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 30 min.

Originally published as part of Fantasia Fest 2023 — Dispatch 3.