After a group of Christmas carollers leaves the front porch of an ordinary suburban house, four people watching from the darkness move in, immediately stabbing in the neck the man (Douglas Kidd) that greets them at the door, and then holding his wife (Isabelle Boulton) down to carve open her belly and paint a sigil on the window in her blood – all to the ironising strains of L.A. Witch’s Kill My Baby Tonight. This Manson-esque home invasion that opens The Sacrifice Game is ingeniously filmed in a single fluid shot from the outside, looking through various windows at the murder and mayhem within.
Inside and outside count in Jenn Wexler’s second feature, set near the end of 1971. While almost all the staff and students at Blackvale School For Girls are heading out home for the holidays, four people are being left behind in the institution’s spacious interiors. Sent there against her will by her stepfather after the death of her mother, Samantha (Madison Baines) has just learnt that she will be staying through the vacation, and is now stuck inside with “quiet girl in the corner” Clara (Georgia Acken) – a reserved Wednesday-like figure who doesn’t like “to let people in”, hides away in the basement to read “the books they don’t want us to see”, and secretly cuts herself in the toilets. Left looking after this mismatched pair are kindly teacher Miss Rose Tanner (Chloë Levine, also star of Wexler’s debut The Ranger, 2018) who dreams of getting out of this place for a “public school job back in civilisation”; and her boyfriend the handyman Jimmy (Gus Kenworthy), who would prefer Rose to settle there with him.
Blackvale is also the final destination of the so-called ‘Christmas killers’ – charismatic psychopath Jude (Mena Massoud), class of ’64 alumna Maisie (Olivia Scott Welch), hulking, haunted Vietnam vet Grant (Derek Johns) and lovesick alcoholic Doug (Laurent Pitre). Having left a trail of bodies on their spree, and collected blood and other human samples from their victims, they are intending to raise hell in this boarding school with a history, guided by Maisie and the page that she once stole from an arcane book there.
Now helpless captives, Rose, Samantha and Clara seem destined to play a part in a long-planned sacrificial ritual being conducted by callous, sadistic murderers – but something in the shadows has been waiting much, much longer for an opportunity to emerge, and in the panic and pandemonium that unfolds, rôles will reverse and tables will turn as, in keeping with the school motto, “Blackvale girls look out for each other.”
With an attentive script (co-written by Wexler and Sean Redlitz) that humanises even its most monstrous characters, The Sacrifice Game is nasty but also often very funny. Cleverly remixing motifs from The Shining (the snowbound building, the paradoxical photographs, the axe, the hand-holding ‘sisters’), it inverts the values of Christmas, celebrates female solidarity, and lets the devil both in and outside, as it gradually puts a smile on the faces of its otherwise lugubrious teen characters.
Make no mistake, this is a ‘coming out’ movie, perhaps not quite in the way – and yet exactly in the way – that you think. It is also a refreshing blast of fresh air to the face, that leaves us, as at the beginning, out in the cold looking in, with a whole world of diabolical desire just within reach.