The condemned: Sacrifice (2021)
The plot: We’re never getting that Guillermo del Toro adaptation of At The Mountains Of Madness, are we? It was almost exactly a decade ago that the Oscar-winning director’s longtime dream of tackling the famed H.P. Lovecraft novella was cut off at the knees by Universal Studios. Even his subsequent offer to soften the violence with a PG-13 cut of the story didn’t manage to bring mighty Cthulhu back to life. As a result, it seems we’re doomed to forever be stuck with small-scale versions of the Cthulhu mythos, scrappy indie genre films doing their best to inject some larger-than-life visual grandiosity into the author’s adjective-heavy tales. From Roger Corman’s 1970 cheapie The Dunwich Horror to Stuart Gordon’s Dagon to the relative success of last year’s Color Out Of Space, even the more quality of low-budget adaptations tend to have some seams showing when it comes to crafting the requisite striking visuals.
So if you want to do Lovecraft but don’t have any money, there’s another option: Just scrap all that difficulty imagery altogether and don’t worry about dazzling your audience! That’s the route chosen by Sacrifice, a film that goes for the old “inspired by” credit, though according to the opening, it takes equal influence from “the short story ‘Men Of The Cloth’ by Paul Kane and the works of H P [sic] Lovecraft.” As far as I can tell, co-writer-directors Andy Collier and Tor Mian took Kane’s original story, stripped it down to the basic elements, and made it more Lovecraftian in setting and style. Still, sticking Lovecraft’s name in your credits generally implies there’s going to be some cosmic or beastly payoff, likely with less-than-immersive special effects. It’s a pretty bold choice on this movie’s part to summon the name, and then not deliver either monsters or mayhem. And based on a cursory look at the IMDB reviews, curious viewers were not thrilled about that decision!
After a brief opening that shows a woman and her young son getting on a boat and fleeing their island home in the middle of the night for reasons unknown (though presumably bleak, considering the blood we see the mom washing off of her hands), we cut to the present day. Isaac (Ludovic Hughes) and Emma (Sophie Stevens), a young couple, arrive on a remote Norwegian island; Isaac hasn’t been there since his mother suddenly spirited him away that night, but following her death, he’s inherited the house, so they’ve made the trip in order to arrange for his old childhood home to be sold prior to the rapidly approaching birth of their first child. (They mention Emma is due in just a few weeks; you shouldn’t be flying that close to your due date, Emma!) The locals are deeply unfriendly, even hostile—that is, until they realize who Isaac is, and that he was born there. Soon, the local sheriff (indie-horror mainstay Barbara Crampton) shows up on Isaac’s doorstep to reveal the unpleasant truth: His mother murdered his father that fateful night long ago, thereby depriving him of his roots in this community.
As a result, Isaac is soon steeping himself in the local folklore and traditions, most of which seem to revolve around water and the myth of “the slumbering one,” a god-like creature far below the surface of the island. (Honestly, given the film’s aversion to directly calling out the Cthulhu mythos it so clearly wants to be a part of, I was half-expecting them to call it “Cuh-schmoo-loo.”) As he becomes more embroiled in the odd practices of the villagers, Isaac starts to change, becoming cruel and distant from Emma, while simultaneously suggesting they abandon their lives back home to live here. Understandably, Emma is not so thrilled about this plan, and as Isaac’s behavior gets more worrying, Emma realizes she, too, might need to make a break for it. If you’re thinking history might repeat itself, you’re halfway to the ending—but given the dearth of Lovecraftian horrors, the climax instead showcases a ritual that nods to the possibility of ancient horrors while delivering an abrupt “that’s all, folks!” of an ending. There may as well be a sign reading, “This way to the egress.”
Over-the-top box copy: “A refreshingly classy piece of folk horror,” reads the blurb on the front of the Blu-ray. I’m not sure how classy it is, but I’m also not sure there’s such a surfeit of unfashionable folk-horror that one stands out from the pack by having class. Is Midsommar not classy? Help me out here, I’m from the Midwest. The back of the box also includes the rave “… satisfying, dramatic, and above all else, surprising.” If I were going to pick one thing that Sacrifice is above all else, “surprising” is likely not the word I’d go for. Maybe “a movie”? “Above all else, 87 minutes long”? “We got Barbara Crampton, you’re welcome”?
The descent: Longtime readers of this feature may remember that I have a soft spot for anything related to H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos, even dreadful animated children’s flicks. Sure, Lovecraft himself may have been a total nightmare garbage human whose racial hatred infected everything he did, but there’s a reason outcast kids have been devouring his stories for roughly one hundred years. Much like the vast universes created by Stephen King, there’s a visceral appeal to getting lost in a huge mythological framework of things that go bump in the night. (Really, “things that go bump and then devour the planet moments after driving all of humanity to madness” is more accurate.) And the trailer teases some potentially very Cthulhu-esque moments. So, good work, mildly deceptive trailer, you pulled me in.
The theoretically heavenly talent: Given the total lack of unspeakable eldritch gods whose very existence surely makes one gibber in terror, the main draw for this project is the delightful Barbara Crampton. Horror aficionados likely need no reintroduction, but to those unfamiliar with her name, Crampton became a horror B-movie star in the ’80s, thanks to starring roles in cult classics like Re-Animator, Chopping Mall, From Beyond, and more. After shifting to soaps in the ’90s, the actor has had a welcome resurgence in the indie horror world in the past decade, starting with her appearance as the mom in the home-invasion thriller You’re Next. If you’ve seen a low-budget horror movie in the 2010s, there is a 20% chance Crampton was in it. No need to run the numbers on that, it’s just science. Barbara Crampton science. [Adopts educational programming voice]: If you’d like to learn more about Barbara Crampton, The A.V. Club’s Random Roles interview with her has got you covered!
The execution: Sacrifice is halfway to being a good movie. Unfortunately, it’s a little unclear which half: on the one hand, you’ve got a deadly serious horror-thriller about a man slowly losing his grip on reality and falling prey to the machinations of an ancient, monster-worshipping cult. On the other, you’ve got a campy bit of fun that doesn’t quite want to play its narrative straight. Either one is potentially enjoyable, but this movie can’t quite make up its mind what it wants to be, and thus ends up falling short on both counts.
Here’s an example: The lighting in this movie is ridiculous, but it never really acknowledges that. Every meal between Emma and Isaac basically takes place in the dark—good for ominous tone, maybe, but for two people who don’t think they’re in a horror movie, they might want to consider turning on the overhead light? Plus, every house in this little Norwegian village applies the same filter to all of the lights in their house—a color scheme we might charitably refer to as “evil purple.” Who wouldn’t feel at home continually basking in the neon glow of electric menace?
It would be fine if the movie wanted to leave this entire story in the netherworld of “What if it was all a Jacob’s Ladder scenario?”, and therefore didn’t need to make sense. But that’s not the case, as is driven home by the four separate dream sequences, all of which utilize the exact same trope of “pretend this is real, right until something supernatural happens and the character wakes in fright,” a tactic that gets progressively more tiresome each time the movie employs it, until you’re literally just saying, “Oh, come on—again?!” By the last instance, it starts to feel like Trolling: The Movie.
Also, a big part of the problem begins and ends with Isaac. Stories about people’s personalities gradually changing don’t tend to work if there’s not much personality there to begin with. Ludovic Hughes may be a fine actor, but Sacrifice saddles him with the thankless and probably impossible task of making Isaac even slightly relatable by not spending any time with him before sending him down the path of mind-altering villainy. We watch him cry upon learning his mother killed his father, but we had no sense of his connection to his long-absent father prior to this, so the emotion doesn’t really land. Besides, even before his turn to the dark side, Isaac seems like kind of a douche. When he and Emma go to a bar in town to get some food their first night there, the bartender and a local heavy make clear the two outsiders aren’t welcome. Rather than say, “Eesh, I wouldn’t want to eat what someone who obviously hates me would serve me, anyway,” Isaac’s response is this:
See? You hate Isaac even before he turns evil, simply for being so impossibly dense. It doesn’t help that he spends most of the movie with this look on his face:
Lookin’ good, Isaac!
Crampton, on the other hand, is reliably aces here. She seems to realize what kind of movie this should be. As Sheriff Renate Nygard, Crampton is alternately eerie and funny, imbuing her character’s persona with just the right hint of arch camp, a doubly layered performance that sells the scares while letting you know that, yes, it’s okay to laugh, because this shit is ridiculous. (Adding to the fun? Her very obvious decision to lean in and out of the Norwegian accent she’s rocking, based on whether she thinks the line plays better without one.) Perhaps you’d allow her to introduce her daughter, Astrid (Johanne Adde Dahl), with the most awkward segue imaginable? Take it away, Sheriff.
Ultimately, the last-minute pivot toward a Lovecraftian gloss on The Wicker Man territory isn’t enough to rescue Sacrifice from the feeling that it’s teasing rich and massive payoffs on which it never delivers. I’m not saying there needs to be a 400-foot-high sea serpent that pops out of the water at the end, but when your suggestive and anticipatory dream sequences feature little tentacled beings, you damn well better reveal them in the finale. (The box description of the movie literally ends by saying Emma and Isaac encounter “a cult that worships a sea-dwelling deity.” I take that as a promise, not a taunt, movie.) It’s pretty disappointing to never have Chekov’s underwater god-creature pulled off the shelf and fired in the third act. Instead, all we’re left with is the low-rent dreams of Emma, which provide all the chills of staring into a tank at the fish market.
Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Slim. Despite a few moments of lunkheaded humor and some WTF segues, there’s just not enough quality here to pull in anyone outside of Lovecraft-curious lookie-loos such as myself.
Damnable commentary track or special features? Indeed. There’s a director and producer commentary track, and hoo boy, is it revealing. They admit they ended up shooting the film for one-third of the planned budget, hacking away shots and expenses left and right, which really tells you a lot about why it looks the way it does. Lots of discussion about ways they saved money—living in the Airbnb rental they used as the set, covering a lot of the production duties themselves instead of hiring pros, and so on. Also, they sound pretty annoyed at the comparative success of The Color Out Of Space, which came out while they were in production. (“It [Sacrifice’s use of color] would have been a massive success, were it not for Nicolas Cage.”) But a very telling comment, early on, is about their ideas of how to create mood: “Cthulhu is a terrible, transdimensional creature—but he’s also a squid, so inky water is quite thematic.”
There are also interviews with each of the stars, and a short film, “The Seventeenth Kind,” which is a roughly 30-minute sci-fi comedy about late-night infomercials and alien invasions, and is fine as far as those things go, if not terribly funny. It, too, does not feature any terrible, transdimensional creatures.