By Brendan Graham
Shudder is the gift that keeps on giving, and this holiday season they are providing horror fans with more gruesome goodies to keep our spirits bright and our screens soaked in blood. The newest feature in their collection adds demonic rituals, home invasions, and Manson Family-esque murders and has it all crash land at a girl’s boarding school during the holiday break. THE SACRIFICE GAME is a worthy addition to the horror holiday lineup, even if it stumbles a bit towards the end.
To not spoil the holiday horrors to come, I will quote the official synopsis: “In the 1970s, boarding school students Samantha (Madison Baines) and Clara (Georgia Acken) stay behind during Christmas break. Things take a deadly turn when a murderous gang arrives at their doorstep, intent on summoning a demon.”
Right off the bat, THE SACRIFICE GAME brilliantly conveys the tone of the film as well as provides a small taste of the carnage in store for the viewer when our group of villains break into a couple's home and dispatch them violently. The perpetrators include Maisie (Olivia Scott Welch), Jude (Mena Massoud), Grant (Derek Johns), and Doug (Laurent Pitre). Also rounding out the cast are Rose (Chloë Levine) who is the chaperone for the school during the holiday break, and Rose’s boyfriend Jimmy (Gus Kenworthy). Director/Producer Jenn Wexler and co-writer Sean Redlitz waste little time establishing the stakes at hand between sequences of horrific murders and simultaneously what’s occurring at Blackvale, a Catholic Boarding School for girls where our protagonists are stuck during the holidays. The tension builds up wonderfully as we know these killers are on their way and as we grow attached to the remaining members of the school, and once they arrive on the front doorstep, we're prepared for the worst.
While the ensemble works well together, there are a few standouts that truly elevate the film. Levine shines as Rose, who provides much-needed warmth and tenderness towards the girls and easily transitions to terrified when presented with the nightmarish home invasion. Baines’ Samantha is believably introverted and relatable, and her friendship with Clara also provides a tender touch amongst the violence. I also found Pitre’s Doug as a much-needed comedic backbone to the film. However, the film belongs to Acken, who commands every scene that she’s in with her delightfully twisted wit and unpredictability.
What I appreciated the most about THE SACRIFICE GAME, is how it plays with the audience’s expectations and manages to subvert them with surprises around every turn. I found myself internally groaning at where I thought the story was going and being pleasantly surprised when the film went in a different direction. The movie is at its best when it raises a little hell and it does get absolutely bonkers when certain secrets are unveiled. Gorehounds will find plenty to enjoy here, especially when the film has reached its namesake scene. The practical effects are fantastic here and the kills are bloody.
Although the first two acts are well crafted, the climax of the film lacks the same impact for me. It seems rushed in both pacing and digital effects, especially in the final conflict. Additionally, I found Massoud's portrayal of Jude to be more comical than menacing at times, but that could also just be a personal gripe.
THE SACRIFICE GAME is a delightfully gruesome gift that horror fans will want to unwrap again and again. It combines violence and bloodshed without being mean-spirited and features fantastic practical effects. The cast is solid and the story is intriguing. It commands your attention from the very first scene and manages to keep it throughout its runtime. Prepare your sacrifice, this is a game you don’t want to miss.
THE SACRIFICE GAME arrives on Shudder this Friday, December 8th, 2023.