By Thomas M. Puhr.

Maybe I was too harsh toward last year’s Violent Night after all; at least that one seemed to enjoy its own company.”

If you saw The Holdovers (2023) and wondered, “What if this were a horror movie, and not good?” then The Sacrifice Game (2023) might be for you. In its broad strokes, director Jenn Wexler’s second feature is strikingly similar to Alexander Payne’s latest: Each takes place in an East Coast boarding school during the early 1970s, where outcast students spend their Christmas vacation after being abandoned by their parents. Throw in a gang of Satan-worshipping cultists who crash the party, and you have a horror setup that practically writes itself. And that’s part of what makes The Sacrifice Game so frustrating: It’s actually a pretty good premise. But the final product never gets off the ground by generating real suspense, taking advantage of its setting’s atmospheric possibilities, or even having a sense of fun. It’s all rather joyless. 

Madison Baines stars as high schooler Samantha, who finds herself stuck at Blackvale Academy after her stepfather cancels her pickup at the last minute. Joining her are the younger, secretive Clara (Georgia Acken), who’s even less popular than Samantha; the eager-to-please new teacher, Miss Tanner (Chloë Levine); and the school cook (as well as Miss Tanner’s not-so-secret love interest), Jimmy (Gus Kenworthy). Buoyed by Baines and Acken’s charm, these expository scenes are the film’s strongest; interspersed with moments of the two girls slowly opening up to each other – they sneak some vodka in the basement – are scenes tracing the bloody murder spree of the lazily-monikered “Christmas Killers,” a Manson-like gang stalking the countryside. It’s only a matter of time before the latter come knocking at Blackvale’s doors one snowy Christmas Eve and take Samantha and company hostage. And their arrival is far from coincidence; one of the members, Maisie (Olivia Scott Welch), is an alum who has chosen the school for the a climactic, demon-summoning ritual. Some students never really graduate, you know?

The Sacrifice Game loses steam right when it should be taking off: After these two story threads finally converge. Whereas some effort is put into making Samantha and Clara mildly interesting, the Christmas Killers are barely sketches. You have the snarling leader, Jude (Mena Massoud); the wimpy comic relief, Doug (Laurent Pitre); and the unstable quiet one, Grant (Derek Johns). Inevitable tensions flare when we discover that Jude and Doug are vying for Maisie’s romantic attention; Grant, meanwhile, does little more than stand around and look hulking. All these broad group dynamics are spelled out for us in no uncertain terms during a prolonged dinner scene in which the leaders terrorize their captive audience. Most of the action, in fact, takes place in the kitchen and a sparsely decorated great room. To be fair, the limited sets may be a matter of a limited budget, but it’s disappointing to be enticed with a sprawling setting that could’ve been a veritable treasure trove of creative set pieces (What about the library? Or the gym? Or the dorm rooms?) only to have the action relegated to two just a few locations.

If you saw The Holdovers (2023) and wondered, ‘What if this were a horror movie, and not good?’ then The Sacrifice Game (2023) might be for you.”

These complaints would have meant little had they been counteracted by clever writing, which remains a free tool at any filmmaker’s disposal. But most of the dialogue feels wooden or just plain lazy. “A pretty girl bats her eyes at me, says I’ll get anything I want out of it, and I believed her,” Doug explains to Samantha and Clara for no apparent reason. Later, when considering the convoluted lore behind the demon they’re trying to summon, the same character observes how “If it’s wanting to be set free, then it’s not free, right?” Right. Thanks for that one, Doug. Lines like these are semi-played for laughs, though their real purpose (to tell rather than show: a cardinal sin of basic storytelling) is all-too-obvious.  

The acting, too, falters once the madness begins. When Clara, Samantha, and Miss Tanner briefly escape, the ensuing chase sequence is oddly restrained. The actors are shown not so much running as trotting, their facial expressions betraying a moderate unease rather than “I’m about to be murdered” terror. Horror films tend to suffer from overacting, but the pendulum swings too far in the opposite direction here. As a result, the performers seem a bit bored with the material themselves. And if they can’t get excited, then why should we?

Films like The Sacrifice Game have modest aspirations. They don’t want to reinvent the wheel as much as they aim to provide a pleasantly bitter antidote to the holiday schmaltz flooding streaming services this time of year. The Sacrifice Game never clears this bar. Maybe I was too harsh toward last year’s Violent Night after all; at least that one seemed to enjoy its own company.

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.

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