Roger Ebert Home

The Sacrifice Game

The supernatural hostage thriller “The Sacrifice Game” feels like a self-conscious throwback, though not to any particular style or genre. If anything, “The Sacrifice Game” feels like a response to Quentin Tarantino’s allusive style of post-modern cine-pastiche, especially given the filmmakers’ concern for a Manson Family-style cult, who invade a girls’ boarding school before Christmas, and take hostage its last remaining occupants: two shy students, an eager-to-please young teacher, and her doting boyfriend, too.

There are a few other prominent influences on “The Sacrifice Game,” including the Coen Brothers’ bleakly funny ‘90s blizzard noir classic “Fargo” and the dour mid-‘70s horror movies of Bob Clark, particularly his 1974 twofer of “Black Christmas” and “Deathdream.” Unfortunately, these affectionately dog-eared references don’t cohere into a meaningfully personal style, which makes unflattering Tarantino comparison somewhat unavoidable. How could you not think of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” while watching the opening scene of “The Sacrifice Game,” which begins the movie with a Family-style home invasion and triple homicide, presented in a showy long take with smooth, gliding camerawork.

The killing starts with a knife to the throat of an actor who looks like he could by Cliff Booth’s stunt double. Another victim’s blood is used to draw an ominous-looking symbol on a set of windows overlooking the backyard. Then an on-screen title credit announces the movie’s start with a corny faux-retro font. This ice-cold opening should sting, but it’s not fast or focused enough to be upsetting.

The rest of “The Sacrifice Game” wouldn’t feel like such a lumpy blend of genre conventions if its creators remixed the past with greater conviction or technical finesse. An opening title card that announces both the date—“December 22, 1971”—and how far away the next major holiday is (“Three nights until Christmas”) suggests that somebody doesn’t expect their audience will be paying attention.

The boarding school’s last remaining residents also barely distinguish themselves before they’re tied up and forced to either witness or participate in a grisly supernatural ritual. Teenage Samantha (Madison Baines) cries when her dad tells her, off-camera and over the phone, that he can’t spend Christmas with her after all. And Samantha’s timid schoolmate, Clara (Georgia Acken), mostly keeps to herself, when she’s not being bullied. (She also enjoys drawing.) Affable young teacher Rose (Chloe Levine) wants to be everyone’s friend, and her shy, but physical fit boyfriend Jimmy (Gus Kenworthy) can’t stop reminding us of his finite mortality. (“I’ll be back soon. Can’t wait.”)

Meanwhile, a quartet of killers give speeches and slouch around with slicked back hair, sideburns, turtle necks, leather jackets, and other fetish-ready vintage/period looks. Jude (Mena Masoud), the leader, gives orders and preens while long-haired paranoiac Doug (Laurent Pitre) envies Jude’s flirty connection with Maisie (Olivia Scott Welch), who smokes and knows things about dark magic. Grant (Derek Johns) is just another heavy with a past. The group’s plan to perform a blood sacrifice does not go their way. Then the girls fight back against their evil hippie-presenting captors.

A meandering plot and some by-the-numbers characterizations wouldn’t be so bad if “The Sacrifice Game” didn’t otherwise feel so threadbare. Tin-eared dialogue, credited to director Jenn Wexler and co-writer Sean Redlitz, often makes the movie seem longer than its 99-minute runtime. And time moves slowest when characters declaim about what’s really motivating them, like when Doug takes way too much time explaining their group’s power dynamic (it’s not great!), or when Jude vamps about the true meaning of “sacrifice.”

This long, slack, uninflected dialogue feels post-Tarantinian in the sense that it creates more work for already inexperienced performers, and also brings to mind every other movie that already went there. It’s hard to care when a major character psychologically breaks down Grant, who previously served in the Vietnam War. It’s probably even harder to sell hard tack lines like, "But it isn't just a job, is it? When you're out there, in the jungle, far from home, knowing that a Viet Cong soldier might already have you lined up in his sights?" Either way, the resulting dialogue-intensive scenes aren’t convincing.

Wexler seems more confident as a director than a writer, though she never fully exploits the heightened melodrama of her and Redlitz’s pulpy scenario. Cinematographer Alexandre Bussiere also sometimes makes the most out of the movie’s central location, lighting and moving around the boarding school with some flair. But for the most part, “The Sacrifice Game” doesn’t look—or move, or sound—as eerie as it needs to.

There’s not enough cold sweat ambience here, and that makes it even harder to root for a modestly budgeted chiller whose creators clearly started their project from a place of cinephilic affection. Even sympathetic genre fans will have trouble finding something new about such old hat material.

On Shudder now.



Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

Now playing

Film Credits

The Sacrifice Game movie poster

The Sacrifice Game (2023)

90 minutes

Latest blog posts


comments powered by Disqus