‘The Sacrifice Game’ Fantastic Fest 2023 Review: Jenn Wexler’s Latest Is A Perfectly-Wrapped Holiday Horror Gift

The Sacrifice Game

In the horror genre, cults and heavy 1970s influences are a match made in hell, an unholy union reminiscent of the days of Satanic Panic and Charles Manson. To make a film full of those influences feel unique is no easy task, yet director Jenn Wexler pulls it off with seeming ease in her new feature The Sacrifice Game, which she co-wrote with Sean Redlitz. The Sacrifice Game succeeds due to Wexler’s focus on female relationships and subverting expectations of the typical cult horror film. Plus, the holiday vibes are eerie and impeccable. 

It’s holiday break and Samantha (Madison Baines) is ready to leave Blackvale, a Catholic all-girls boarding school. But a call from her stepdad crushes that dream, and she’ll be spending the holidays with her teacher Rose (Chloe Levinë) and another student Clara (Georgia Acken), a quiet loner. Samantha is rightfully upset, both grieving her recently passed mother and grappling with the fact she doesn’t feel wanted. But slowly she and Clara strike up a tentative friendship, finding comfort in each other’s company. But the warm and fuzzy Christmas vibes are quickly smashed to bits when a group of cultists appears on Blackvale’s doorstep, hellbent on summoning a demon.

This cult—made up of Maisie (Olivia Scott Welch), Jude (Mena Massoud), Doug (Laurent Pitre), and Grant (Derek Johns)—is looking to sacrifice a virgin to complete the demon-summoning ritual. But as the small-but-mighty cult believes they’ve gained control of the situation, the girls and Rose show they won’t go down without a fight. To say any more of the film’s incredible twists and turns would ruin the experience Wexler has crafted in a well-paced script that never lets you catch your breath.

Supporting that script is a cast of actors willing to have fun and lean into the camp sensibilities established from the first frame. Now, The Sacrifice Game never goes full camp, necessarily, but the performances by Massoud and Acken, specifically, wink and nod at more campy predecessors that serve as inspiration for Wexler. Massoud plays Jude with a wild-eyed chaos that’s very much reminiscent of Charles Manson. But Massoud takes it even further to the point of dark comedy as his ego propels him towards a violent end.

Then there’s newcomer Acken as Clara, whose arc I’ll keep a mystery, but suffice it to say Acken has incredible range as a young performer. Watching her character change and how she embodies that change is perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of the film. Keep your eyes out for a particular sequence involving dance choreography that truly gives you a sense of Acken’s command of her physicality.

In the background of unhinged performances and wild plot twists are colorful twinkling Christmas lights and beautifully wrapped presents under the tree. Here, the holiday season serves as a sinisterly saccharine backdrop, a cruelly ironic setting for a girls’ school massacre. Production designer Ted Samuels adorns the massive building with enough holiday cheer to make it feel almost cozy but is restrained enough to prevent all of the school’s freeze from melting away. Plus, the use of primary colors emphasizes that 1970s vibe without diving headfirst into nostalgia porn. 

Among all of its well-done parts, perhaps the best is Wexler’s creation of a femme-dominated world. Where men like Jude parade around like they’re God’s (or Satan’s) gift to the world, the women are more measured in their approach, crushing egos in their palms. This film decimates expectations of charismatic cult leaders and patriarchal domination for a more complex story about feminine manipulation and finding your power. Here Wexler proves, very confidently, that if you give these stories to anyone other than a white man, you’ll get something interesting, risky, smart, and creepy.

The Sacrifice Game is Wexler showing what she can do with more money and more resources. Her confidence as a filmmaker has never wavered and this melding of holiday horror with cult slasher to create a story about the power of female friendships only further proves that. The Sacrifice Game is a new holiday horror classic, at least in my book, that deserves an annual rewatch alongside Black Christmas (1974), Deep Red, and Dial Code Santa.   



The Sacrifice Game is a new holiday horror classic.



Sign up for The Harbinger a Dread Central Newsletter