[Fantasia 2023 Review] THE SACRIFICE GAME

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, THE SACRIFICE GAME being covered here wouldn’t exist.

The late 60s-early 70s were a heck of a transitional period in the States. Americans were still being sent to Vietnam. Society was still reeling from the Tate-LaBianca murders committed by the Manson Family. Gone was the safety that arrived post-WW2. Now, anything could happen. Using this era as a backdrop is Jenn Wexler’s latest film, THE SACRIFICE GAME. Keeping viewers on their toes, just when you think you know what’s coming, well…anything can happen.

In THE SACRIFICE GAME, we watch as students Samantha (Madison Baines) and Clara (Georgia Acken) are forced to spend their Christmas holidays trapped at Blackvale. There’s a particular undercurrent of fear and tension this holiday season. Why? Well, as the holy holiday would have it, there is a quartet of people running around murdering people. Their purpose? Unknown. That is until this group arrives in the footsteps of the boarding school.

With sacrifice comes the expectation of a gift. However, as all trapped in Blackvale will soon realize, there are forces waiting to be unleashed that have other plans. What starts off as a simple matter of sacrifice gets turned upside its head, and expectations become subverted in a delightfully surprising way. All that is to say that the holiday season is nothing like anyone expected.

Fun and reindeer slays

While THE SACRIFICE GAME is a horror film, there’s plenty of fun and heart to be had. Wexler and screenwriter Sean Redlitz build an introduction that allows us to build a connection and care for Samantha, Clara, and teacher Rose (Chloë Levine) before things start to heat up. Set up to be the underdogs, you’ll be rooting for them.

Making it a little bit more difficult to hate the villains of THE SACRIFICE GAME is the dynamite casting of our murderino gang. Mena Massoud jumps out of the shadow of Aladdin to play a charismatic narcissist high on his own supply. Wexler, Redlitz, and Massoud bake in the time to peel back the façade his Jude projects, making him the guy to root against easy peasy.

Playing the bad girl is Olivia Scott Welch, whose Maisie is the brains and beauty of the operation. Unfortunately, she’s a bit overshadowed by Massoud’s performance as well as Laurent Pitre’s Doug. Providing the comedic moments of THE SACRIFICE GAME, Doug is so dang likable. He’s also the man to be pitied, whether pining for his crush or drinking himself stupid. Derek Johns’ Grant is stoic and mostly silent but, as the truth of his experience is revealed, he’s given a little more wiggle room to show more depth.

The biggest surprise is Georgia Acken, making her feature film debut in THE SACRIFICE GAME. As the calmer half of Madison Baines’ emotionally fraught Samantha, she knows how to emerge from the quiet to make her presence known.

Twists and turns of THE SACRIFICE GAME

While the acting is the secret sauce to give a little extra oomph, it’s clear that the screenplay concocted by Wexler and Redlitz is the glue that holds everything together. Little blink-and-you-miss-it moments clue viewers in early on that something is amiss within the school, but the full picture isn’t put together until it’s too late to reverse course.

By the time the big reveal occurred, I found myself cackling. Coming into the film with expectations associated with horror set in this time period is the wrong path. Just when you think you know what to expect, Wexler and Redlitz flip the script.

The set of Blackvale is very much a character. A home, a prison, and a school all wrapped in one, the actual building used in THE SACRIFICE GAME is well-utilized by the cast and crew. Shots of long hallways seeming to go forever, panning up to reflect the height of the entryway ceiling, and the narrow dark stairway down into the basement are captured perfectly by Alexandre Bussière’s lens. It’s no wonder that Blackvale serves as both a refuge and a place students are dying to escape.

Throughout the course of THE SACRIFICE GAME, we get a glimpse – both big and small – of how all the characters sacrifice in their own way. The biggest takeaway? Life is not a game. Instead, our actions have consequences. Despite this darker note, the gift that keeps on giving is the fun and mischievous energy infused into THE SACRIFICE GAME. When things get dialed up, the games have truly begun.

THE SACRIFICE GAME had its world premiere at the 2023 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Sarah Musnicky
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