PLOT: Murderers seeking to summon a demon raid a boarding school on Christmas Eve, holding the few people there captive… then they get more than they bargained for when the demon is revealed.
REVIEW: Five years ago, Jenn Wexler made her feature directorial debut with the very entertaining throwback slasher The Ranger, which put a group of punk-style criminals up against a psychotic forest ranger – and came off like the closest we’ll probably ever get to seeing a Psycho Cop 3. For her follow-up, Wexler has made a ‘70s throwback supernatural horror film. And while The Ranger wasn’t directly said to be set in the ‘80s or early ‘90s, The Sacrifice Game is very clear about when it’s set: December 1971, in the days leading up to Christmas.
Mena Massoud, Olivia Scott Welch, Derek Johns, and Laurent Pitre play a quartet of murderers who have been racking up a substantial body count this December, and the film opens with a murder sequence that brings to mind – at least, it did for me – the crimes of the Manson Family. Then we’re introduced to characters who inhabit an isolated boarding school. There’s Wexler’s The Ranger star Chloë Levine as cool young teacher Rose, who will even inform a student where they can locate some vodka in the pantry; Georgia Acken as quiet girl Clara, who keeps to herself and doesn’t fit in with her peers; and Madison Baines as the heartbroken Samantha, whose mother recently passed away and now she has been abandoned in this boarding school by her stepfather. When the school empties out for the holiday, Clara, Samantha, Rose, and Rose’s boyfriend Jimmy (Gus Kenworthy) are the only ones left behind. Until that quartet of murderers shows up at the front door.
If you’re hoping The Sacrifice Game will be similar to The Ranger, I have to tell you ahead of time, Wexler took a very different approach to her second film. While there are humorous moments with the killers, they don’t drop one-liners like The Ranger did, and The Sacrifice Game has a much more serious tone overall. It’s also a bit of a slow build – which is part of the reason why it ended up being twenty-two minutes longer than The Ranger, with a running time of 99 minutes rather than 77. This is all fine, as different movies require different styles. But The Sacrifice Game would have benefited from being a bit shorter, because it delays getting to its point for quite some time. The story might have been best suited as a segment in an anthology, but as a feature on its own it could have at least been closer to 80 minutes than 100.
When the killers raid the school and force their captives to have Christmas dinner with them, the whole situation is so familiar that it comes off as dull rather than thrilling. Thankfully, there’s something more coming down the line, as the killers have been spilling blood in an effort to summon a demon, which they intend to do within the school. This is where the supernatural element comes in. Problem is, Wexler and co-writer Sean Redlitz wait way too long to bring this element to the forefront. By the time the demon gets involved, it’s too little, too late. Despite the surprise dance scene that made me think of the dance scene in Night of the Demons, even though the one here is much more low-key.
Even while I felt like the movie was dragging, I was always impressed by the acting. Each of the actors do great work in their roles, and the characters are well written. The four killers have distinct personalities; some of them are even likeable and amusing, while others are not so much. Levine proved she could play a good heroine in The Ranger, and that carries over to this film. Acken gets to show off some range as Clara, and Baines does well as the meek and hurting Samantha.
The Sacrifice Game will surely work just fine for some horror fans, but for me the pace and structure really brought this one down. It’s okay, but it could have been much better if it had moved faster and been more up front about the story it was telling.
The Sacrifice Game will be available to watch on the Shudder streaming service as of December 8th.