‘Tis the season of abundance! Celebrate more being more with director Jenn Wexler’s “The Sacrifice Game,” a campy new Shudder release that imagines what would happen if the cast of “The Holdovers” got a Christmas visit from the Manson Family at an all-girls boarding school with a witchy secret.

Co-written by Wexler and Sean Redlitz, this grab-bag seasonal period flick — shot in snowy Canada and set in 1971 — is more gruesome than scary and takes a handful of decidedly silly turns. Be it fruit cake, stuffed stocking, whatever your holiday metaphor, the fantasy horror adventure of students Samantha (Madison Baines) and Clara (Georgia Acken) gifts audiences steadily stranger fun almost all the way through. It’s a genre blend that’s delightful, baffling, and surprisingly ruthless in its decisive direction with a holiday twist that isn’t necessary for the plot but certainly ties the zany concept together.

What begins as a semi-grounded tale of two girls and their teacher (Chloë Levine) left on campus for the holiday break takes a turn for “The Strangers” when a band of demon-worshipping murderers comes calling at the Blackvale School for Girls. The aptly nicknamed “Christmas Killers” are led by the seductive Maisie (Olivia Scott Welch) and her sadistic boyfriend Jude (Mena Massoud). They’re supported by henchmen Grant (Derek Johns) and Doug (Laurent Pitre), who boast a handful of great one-liners and have been killing scads of people in home invasions committed in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  

THE SACRIFICE GAME, Mena Massoud, 2023. © Shudder / Courtesy Everett Collection
“The Sacrifice Game” ©AMC/courtesy Everett Collection

The gang quickly overpowers Ms. Tanner and the girls, as well as Ms. Tanner’s boyfriend Jimmy (Gus Kenworthy), at the school, and there’s enough “Funny Games”-esque tension that results from the ensemble cast to fuel an entire film. But “The Sacrifice Game” is nimble on its feet and soon evolves its story into something even weirder as the killers reveal what they want over a classic hostages-at-formal-dining scenario. The magical second half of the movie would feel a little too YA if the horror wasn’t quite so keyed-up; Wexler is particularly daring with her kid actors and there’s memorable (if vaguely repetitive) gore with some strong knife twists — metaphoric and literal.

Massoud proves generally inspired casting; the “Aladdin” breakout commits oceans of musical theater energy to his serial killer’s showmanship and does his best to sell some lesser solo scenes that see Jude aimlessly wandering through dark hallways. In a substantial ensemble cast, Levine and Welch don’t work quite as well. Even with different wigs, the actors’ appearances are just a smidge too similar and there’s a strange lack of believability in their relationship as a result. Meanwhile, Baines and Acken are excellent: balls of energy that give “The Exorcist: Believer” stars a run for their money in the 2023 race for horror’s most iconic little girls. (You’ll know it when you see it: Acken has a scene that feels very full circle coming at the end of a year for “M3GAN” fans.)

THE SACRIFICE GAME, from left: Georgia Acken, Madison Baines, Chloe Levine, 2023. © Shudder / Courtesy Everett Collection
“The Sacrifice Game”©AMC/courtesy Everett Collection

“The Sacrifice Game” never feels organic, and even for all its groovy ’70s needle drops, the zig-zagging story can’t quite find a compelling pace or narrative flow. It doesn’t really have to in the end. Chunky and imperfect, the over-the-top mashup of horror tropes is surprising enough to make streaming it at home feel engrossing, and imaginative enough to feel original in a seasonal subgenre with a limited window to find its audience.

It won’t work for everyone; some post-production choices make certain moments feel very “Polar Express” in a bad way, and the Christmas theme is more set dressing than sincere mood. But even for the viewers it’ll lose along its twists and turns, Wexler’s Christmas gift to horror fans is sure to be appreciated by those who need it most.

Grade: B-

“The Sacrifice Game” is streaming on Shudder now.

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