At the outset of Sacrifice, it is stated that the movie is partially inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft which, as it is typically understood, means that otherworldly, tentacled beasties will be involved. This is always a good thing in movies, but not in real life, since tentacled creatures are gross and scary and we should all agree to never speak of their existence again. As someone who is supremely phobic of sea creatures, specifically those with tentacles, when I sat down to watch Sacrifice, I knew it could become nightmare fodder pretty quickly. But that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?
Luckily for me, Sacrifice is less of a “run from the giant space octopus” movie and much more of a spooky melodrama with added tentacles. In it we follow Isaac, a man with a really wild chest hair situation going on, and his very pregnant wife Emma, as they visit the former’s birthplace in the wake of his mother’s death. They arrive at the remote Norwegian island with the intention of checking out a property that was bequeathed to them, selling it, and then getting back to America with a nice little nest egg to help them kickstart their new family. It’s not an easy location to get to, requiring a long ferry for the final leg, and when they arrive, the experience is immediately turbulent. The locals are initially pretty hostile, but once they find out that Isaac was born here, they soften up. Like a lot a lot. It’s pretty suspicious, and before long Isaac starts to feel very at home, while Emma is increasingly of the mind that it’s time to pack things up and hit the road.
Well, the ferry, then the road, then the plane, and then probably a few more roads.
It’s from this relationship tension that much of the horror is derived, and from the geographic isolation that we get the rest. Are the strange rituals that are being performed by the locals something to be concerned about, or is it just a cultural difference to be celebrated/ignored? And if it turns out things are indeed dangerous, who is going to offer transport away from the island? In the tradition of things like The Wicker Man or, more recently, Midsommar, the viewer knows that something is up, but it’s not until way too late that we have enough information to truly understand what is really going on, which gives us a taste of the horror that our protagonists are experiencing.
The film looks sharp overall, cleverly applying colorful lighting to elevate what, based on the location, could have been a drab color palette (despite having some breathtaking vistas). By invoking the neon blue and pink lighting that we see so commonly in nightclub scenes, Sacrifice is able to look simultaneously contemporary and classic. The mixture of folk and “fish out of water” horror comes through quite strongly in the visuals, and a lot of it has to do with this lighting. It’s a clever way of visually bifurcating the narrative into two distinct styles, namely that of the cold real world and that of the heightened fantasy/horror sequences.
The performances are a mixed bag. None are even remotely bad, but there are a few choices that muddy things up a bit. Ludovic Hughes, as Isaac, goes big in a way that’s fun to watch, but might be a bit too big to properly serve the story. I get the sense that the film wants me to watch him descend into madness, but he seems pretty unhinged right out of the gate, so some of that transition is lost. Still, it mostly works, as he can be both a scary presence and a pathetic one, and employs both of these modes as needed throughout the story. He’s tasked with bouncing off of Sophie Stevens, whose Emma is the runaway performance of the film. She’s the moral anchor of the story, as well as the viewer’s link to a sense of normalcy. Emma is extremely pregnant, but she powers past physical hindrances in a way that commands respect, and it’s Stevens’ performance that makes this all feel human. Together with Hughes, Stevens helps to make the central relationship feel real. Their problems match the garden variety issues that every couple faces, which helps to mine horror from the leniency that those in a relationship tend to chalk up to “they’re being a little weird, but whatever, I love them all the same.”
Since she is a goddess who chooses to exist amongst us mere mortals, I cannot leave this review without shedding a few words for the great and powerful Barbara Crampton. Here she plays Renate, neighbor to our heroes and the face of local law enforcement. Renate leads the folk rituals of the locals, but is also the only character who really seems to care about Isaac and Emma. Crampton brings warmth and humanity to a character that any horror film enthusiast would have a knee-jerk inclination to mistrust, and does so despite having to work with a heavy accent. It’s not the best recreation of a Norwegian accent, but Crampton is such a lively, engaging performer that this small quibble fades pretty quickly. Hail Crampton! Much like Charismata, the previous film from writers/directors Andy Collier and Tor Mian, Sacrifice takes its time getting to the scary stuff, but uses that time to ratchet up the dread in a big way, leading to a surprising finale that chills to the bone.
Released in select theaters and VOD February 9, 2021, with a Blu-ray release on February 23, 2021.