THE SACRIFICE GAME Director Jenn Wexler Serves Up Home Invasion Holiday Horror

The director joins us to discuss unlocking the story, casting a murderous gang, and more.

By Michael Gingold · December 6, 2023, 5:00 PM EST
The Sacrifice Game

If you’re in the mood for some Christmas fear a few weeks before the holiday, catch Jenn Wexler’s The Sacrifice Game when it makes its Shudder debut this Friday, December 8. Wexler’s second feature following The Ranger is set at the remote Blackvale School for Girls in 1971, when students Clara (Georgia Acken) and Samantha (Madison Baines) must stay behind during the holiday break with teacher Rose (Chloë Levine) and handyman Jimmy (Gus Kenworthy). They soon receive a visit not from St. Nick, but from a vicious gang led by Jude (Mena Massoud) and Maisie (Olivia Scott Welch), who have a literally demonic agenda. FANGORIA spoke with Wexler, (who previously produced movies including Depraved, Most Beautiful Island, and Darling for Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix) at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, where Game world-premiered and the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

You first wrote The Sacrifice Game before The Ranger, so where did the initial inspiration come from?

I started working for Glass Eye Pix in 2013; I had been a fan of the movies they were making, and I stalked Larry until he gave me a job. While working for them, I was like, “I’m going to take a stab at a script to be my first feature as a director.” I just started writing about the things I was interested in, and seeing how they all came together. I went to New Jersey public school, and I was always fascinated by boarding schools, and how mysterious and romantic they were, and how many dark adventures were probably happening there—much more interesting than my own teen years. I had also read Helter Skelter when I was a teenager, so the Manson murders had been on my mind at different times during my life.

I wrote the first draft of Sacrifice Game, and then as I was working at Glass Eye, I started to realize what it means to make a movie and that it was way too big for my first feature. So I put it in a drawer, so to speak, and focused on The Ranger, which was a handful of punk kids in the woods. I felt that would be easier to achieve. And then, in 2018 after The Ranger came out, I returned to Sacrifice Game, and it just stayed with me because it deals with teen loneliness, which is something I dealt with when I was that age.

The storyline flips the script a couple of times along the way, so can you talk about getting the timing of that right?

It was a process starting with the initial outline, how I wanted to structure it, and the parallels I wanted to play with, through to post when I was putting it together and hoping it all worked as I envisioned. My co-writer/husband Sean Redlitz and I often bounce ideas off each other, but on this, he was contributing such awesome stuff that was unlocking the story for me that I was like, “You need to be a full writer on it.” We would pass the script back and forth, and ultimately worked so much on it that now we have little arguments about who came up with what dialogue. Like I’ll say, “I wrote that line,” and he’ll be like, “No, I wrote that line!” [Laughs] I worked with two fantastic editors in Montreal, Arthur Tarnowski and Mathieu Bérubé, who were incredible at helping discover the tonal balance between the humor and the horror, and the movie’s structure.

How did you find that great school location?

I was introduced to Phil Kalin-Hajdu and Albert Melamed, who are producers in Quebec, and they loved the script. They said, “We want to make this in Quebec, and we’re going to show you a bunch of locations here.” And they did; we visited a bunch of boarding schools, but this one [the Abbey of Notre-Dame du Lac], I fell in love with. It’s been around since the 1800s, and it was a monastery; it’s used for weddings and movies and there are no monks there now, but you can certainly feel that energy. When we first went on our scout there, they took us all over—into the clock tower and then down into the basement and creepy tunnels.

Where did you find a house for the opening scene, where the owners would let you go in and throw blood around?

That was incredible. Phil and I just started driving around the area where the school was, and we found this house right around the corner. It was exactly what I envisioned: a ranch-style house that felt very ’60s, with the stones on the outside and a very cool kitchen. The lady who owned it only spoke French, like most people in that area, and fortunately, Phil speaks English and French. So when we first knocked on her door, Phil said in French, “We want to shoot a movie here.” We had to get permission not just from her but also from her kids who lived down the street, and they were all excited for us to come and shoot in their house.

The Sacrifice Game

How did you find the right actors for the gang, individually and as people who could mesh together as a group, and their victims?

I’ve always thought of this movie as an ensemble piece, and I wanted each character to have their own individual personality, things that they’re grappling with, and I didn’t want anyone to be too close to each other. The casting came together in different stages. Mena Massoud, who played Aladdin [in Disney’s live-action remake], I was fascinated by. He’s so charming, so what if we took that charm and made it evil? And he was so down to go there. We were big fans of Olivia Scott Welch in Fear Street, and I loved her in Panic, the Amazon show. We also had so many amazing Canadian talents in the movie; some of the characters were cast through auditions there. Casting is a very visceral thing for me; I just feel it in my gut, like, “You are this person.” And I was shocked; I didn’t know that [gang members] Doug and Grant actually existed. These characters were in my mind, and then I met Laurent Pitre, who plays Doug, and Derek Johns, who plays Grant, and I was like, “You guys are these guys!”

Chloë Levine starred in The Ranger and is my very good friend, so I was thinking about her for Rose while we were writing it. Gus Kenworthy is from American Horror Story, he’s also an Olympic medalist for free skiing, so that’s pretty cool, and I just loved that he had this Prince Charming look about him. It was important that he captured this sweet, classically handsome character. And then we have our teen girls. Madison Baines brought so much vulnerability to her audition, and I fell in love with her energy. This is Georgia Acken’s first feature, and she’s incredible. I feel so honored that we get to introduce her to audiences in her first feature. She has such an instinctive knack for acting and the different beats of a scene and nuances of the character.

Without giving too much away, can you talk about guiding Acken through the intense character arc?

The way I like to work is, I have conversations with each of the actors, and we develop our own language. That was certainly the case with Georgia, and how we talked about Clara. We had keywords we’d use as we discussed where she was in her journey, and because we were shooting out of order, I had to be in touch with each actor on where they were in their emotional journey in the scene. Georgia has a very big journey, so we had our own language, and truly, it didn’t take much; she brought so much to that role. She embraced it and became Clara, and it was beautiful.

We did a table reading, and then we did some rehearsals in groups. It would be Georgia, Madison, and Chloë together because I wanted the energies between the students and the teacher to be comfortable with each other. But I kept the gang kind of separate, so there would be some tension between them. We did a stunt day before shooting, when everyone was starting to get to know each other. That was exciting because it was like, OK, everyone’s going to get used to each other’s energy really quickly before they have to pretend to be punching each other. It was the second day we had all ever met, and it was really fun to watch, as they were all pretending to fight each other.

Can you talk about anything you have coming up beyond this one?

I’m attached to a paranoid sci-fi thriller called Rachel, and I’m so excited to get more into that when the time comes. But right now, it’s just about enjoying sharing The Sacrifice Game with people.

Read more about The Sacrifice Game in our upcoming issue of FANGORIA #22 and watch it on Shudder December 8.