The Sacrifice Game

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Sacrifice Game
"Wexler makes a number of interesting directorial choices." | Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

1971 was a difficult year in the US. The country was beginning to realise that it had bitten off more than it could chew in Vietnam, as young men returned home seriously damaged, their rage spilling over into a society ill-equipped to handle it. Culturally, it was still reeling from the impact of the Manson Family murders. Faith in the optimistic dreams of the counterculture was rapidly fading, and high inflation left ordinary households struggling. Jenn Wexler’s latest film, which screened as part of Fantasia 2023, opens with a image straight out of America’s dream of itself: a group of carol singers in chorus outside a warmly lit suburban home. Then the carol singers leave and four new figures approach the house, seen from behind, almost in silhouette. This will not end well.

It’s hard to imagine Wexler making a dull film about anything. She has twice as much energy as the average human being and throws herself into filmmaking with tremendous passion. This is amply demonstrated during the first violent sequence, when her camera glides around and through the house, letting us observe all that we need to through windows and open doorways, its gaze drifting coolly over the living room floor where a man begs for his life, and across the polished surface of the dining table where woman is held down as her dress is ripped open. Naturally one would assume, at this point, that one were witnessing an act of sexual violence, but in fact these assailants have something different in mind – something very specific. We will soon learn that they have committed more such attacks. As to their motive, the frightened public can only guess.

These gory events are, naturally, the subject of much speculation at the local girls’ boarding school. Academic concerns have largely been set aside there as everyone prepares to go home for the holidays. Everyone, that is, except for two of the girls: Samantha (Madison Baines), whose widowed father seems to have lost interest in spending time with her; and Clara (Georgia Acken), who doesn’t seem to have anybody waiting for her. Young teacher Rose (Chloë Levine, who previously starred in Wexler’s The Ranger) stays behind to look after them. There’s a tree with presents under it and she’s making Christmas dinner, trying to give them as pleasant an experience as possible – but of course, the killers are in the area, and we all know what’s going to happen next.

Do they know what’s going to happen? Beyond a certain point, perhaps not. It’s one thing to prepare for a demonic ritual and quite another to carry it out. What does success look like, anyway? If immortality is the prize, does one just have to wait a few decades to figure whether or not it’s working? The fragile bonds within the group don’t need much additional stress to begin to fracture – and yet that may not be enough to save our heroines. Not when it’s their very innocence which, their assailants are convinced, the demon wants.

There’s a twist here which, in itself, may not hit as hard as hoped. It’s not really all that original and it’s well signposted. That’s not a huge problem, however, as the film still delivers some surprises towards the end, with genre conventions playfully subverted and at least two wishes coming true. The performances are interesting, with Levine perfect as always and Baines delivering a much more realistic depiction of fear than we usually see in horror films. Already feeling dejected and then forced to deal with these fresh horrors, Samantha is slow to reveal any sign of the resilience we’ve been conditioned to expect. She feels completely overwhelmed, sobbing and whimpering, and thereby gives viewers permission to experience similar emotions. Where most genre work are satisfied with terror, this invites us to reckon with the misery which violence creates.

Wexler makes a number of interesting directorial choices. Most horror fans will have seen dozens of demonic rites on screen by now, so unless one wants to throw one’s whole budget at it or wildly skew the aesthetic, there’s not much point in competing to try to deliver the most spectacular one. It’s much more interesting to focus on details. A shared glance. The flicker of a candle flame. A whisper. Little details speak volumes, whilst volumes prove less informative than might have been hoped. If one is going to spend time in a private school, one might at least attempt to improve one’s Latin. Demons don’t care how much money your parents make, or give marks for turning up.

With a great location full of long corridors and spacious rooms, the film is big on atmosphere and highlights class disparities without needing to waste words. Leather and long hair and shouting convey at most a fleeting power amongst these old stones. Outside is soft snow and the silence of night. All the preparations have been made, and it’s time for a little Christmas magic.

Reviewed on: 30 Jul 2023
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The story of Samantha and Clara, two students who are staying behind for the holidays at their boarding school, who must survive the night against uninvited visitors.
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Director: Jenn Wexler

Writer: Sean Redlitz, Jenn Wexler

Starring: Olivia Scott Welch, Mena Massoud, Chloë Levine, Gus Kenworthy, Madison Baines

Year: 2023

Country: US


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