At a boarding school in the early 1970s, a student who’s been eagerly awaiting winter vacation gets a call with bad news: they’ll be spending Christmas at school instead of with their family. Is it Alexander Payne’s new Oscar-buzz movie The Holdovers—or Jenn Wexler’s new Shudder release The Sacrifice Game?
Suffice to say, similarities between the two don’t extend much beyond that broad set-up, which manages to envelop both a coming-of-age drama and an eerie yet empowering tale that involves human sacrifice. As its title suggests, the latter description refers to director and co-writer (with Sean Redlitz) Wexler’s film, which offers a reminder that there’s always room for another entry in the well-stuffed genre of holiday horror movies—particularly when it’s as enjoyable and well-crafted as The Sacrifice Game.
Set over Christmas 1971, The Sacrifice Game opens with a home-invasion nightmare that unfolds alongside perfectly retro, festively candy-colored decorations. Seems a quartet of young people have been terrorizing the area—sort of a Manson Family with New England snow instead of California deserts, and a mysterious purpose that extends beyond the murderous orders of their cocky leader, Jude (Aladdin’s Mena Massoud). Others in the group include Maisie (Fear Street’s Olivia Scott Welch), Grant (Derek Johns), and Doug (Laurent Pitre).
Meanwhile, the stuffy Blackvale School for Girls is winding down for Christmas break, with kindly young teacher Rose (The OA’s Chloë Levine) and her boyfriend Jimmy (American Horror Story: 1984‘s Gus Kenworthy) staying behind to look after the students with nowhere to go: misfit Samantha (Madison Baines), and even bigger misfit Clara (Georgia Acken).
The collision course between these two groups—one chaotically cruel, one almost too wholesome—is set early on, with The Sacrifice Game casually tossing in a local history lesson about a tragedy that was blamed on witchcraft for good measure. But since this is a movie that rewards viewers who enter unspoiled, we’ll just say that the plot takes some surprising turns and gleefully subverts expectations. We can, however, safely praise the gore effects—which are used in service of the movie’s clever story, but also take it over the top enough to please slasher fans—and the cast, especially young actors Baines and Acken. Both flawlessly convey the awkwardness of adolescence… and deftly rise to the occasion when The Sacrifice Game shifts its menace from high-school mean girls to something exponentially darker.
The Sacrifice Game arrives on Shudder December 8.
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