Summertime might be a bit too early to start planning for Christmas (though it’s never too early to plan for Halloween), but one thing you should definitely plan to do this holiday season is watch Jenn Wexler’s The Sacrifice Game. The stylish supernatural horror has everything you could want in a Christmas movie: tree lights, gingerbread men, and murderous cult freaks
The Sacrifice Game had its world premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival (though you’ll have to wait to read my review later when the movie drops on Shudder). I got the chance to meet with director Jenn Wexler and her co-writer/husband Sean Redlitz to talk about the movie. I was very excited for the opportunity, since I’m a big fan of Wexler’s debut feature The Ranger. The two were a bit haggard from only sleeping a couple hours following the after-party of the premiere, but Wexler was more than happy to talk about her inspirations for the film, as well as her love for music. I’ve linked all the songs she mentioned so you can jam out as you read.
“Christmas horror takes something that is supposed to be safe and warm, and then twists it and subverts it.”
Chris Aitkens for Nightmare On Film Street:Before we get to The Sacrifice Game, I want to talk a bit about The Ranger, because I love the marriage between punk rock and horror. And I know you’re a fan of Class of 1984 and The Return of the Living Dead. Has punk rock played any significance in your career?
Jenn Wexler:I would say in my emotional development. As a teenager, part of discovering myself as an individual was going to shows. I grew up in the New Jersey suburbs and I went to a school where everybody was encouraged to look the same, dress the same and fit in. I started to get really excited by horror movies and punk when I was a teenager, and I think so much of that time has influenced the kinds of stories that I want to tell.
NOFS: You filmed The Sacrifice Game in Quebec. A lot of the cast and crew are from Quebec. Is there a reason why you chose to film here? Were there specific locations that you were looking for?
JW:I definitely wanted a boarding school that felt like it was in the middle of nowhere, with mountains and evergreen trees. But really, Fantasia has been a place where I’ve met so many creative collaborators, and one of the producers on The Ranger, Heather Buckley, had read an early draft of the script and she introduced me– at Fantasia a couple years ago– to Phil Kalin-Hajdu and Albert Melamed. They read the script and said “Let’s make this in Montreal!” I came here for a location scout and they brought me to a bunch of different schools. I fell in love with Oka Abbey, which is in Oka, about 30 minutes outside of Montreal. It used to be a monastery. When I arrived there, I said “This is it. I love this place!” And then Phil and Albert introduced me to Quebec’s amazing filmmaking community. So I felt like I was in really good hands shooting here.
“I read Helter Skelter when I was a teenager and the details of that had always stuck with me.”
NOFS: Technically, this movie is a Christmas horror, so that gives the excuse to watch it repeatedly during the holidays. What is it about Christmas that makes for a good horror setting?
JW:I think people are attracted to things in horror that play with childlike imagery. And that’s why Christmas is perfect for horror. Christmas horror takes something that is supposed to be safe and warm, and then twists it and subverts it. Separate from Christmas, if you think about some of the scariest movies like the Babadook or It, it’s playing on these childhood fears and playing with this childhood imagery. And there’s so much packed into Christmas that you can do that with.
NOFS: Why did you and Sean want to set this in the 1970s?
JW:First of all, we were very influenced by a lot of horror from that time for this story. Certainly some of the influences that come to mind were Black Christmas and the Last House on the Left. We’re playing with demonic tropes, so the Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby were on our mind. There’s a really dope movie called Don’t Deliver Us From Evil that came out in 1971 about two teen girls up to no good, so that was on our mind. It was also a time of turbulence. I read Helter Skelter when I was a teenager and the details of that had always stuck with me. So we just merged all of these influences together, and wrapped them up with my own teenage emotional trauma, and the Sacrifice Game was born from that.
“With every movie that I’m developing or going into production on, I create a playlist […] I also create a playlist for each of the actors too”
NOFS: When you were picking songs for the movie, what were you looking for?
JW:A mix of things. We wanted to find obscure late ‘60s / early ‘70s psychedelic occult rock. We wanted to find Christmas tunes, specifically 1940s Bing Crosby-esque Christmas tunes. Because of the journey that one of our characters takes in the film, the movie becomes timeless at the end story-wise. I wanted to break through the barrier of ‘70s music, so that at the end, we have a punk rock song. It’s a punk version of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” by Girl in a Coma.
NOFS: I’m interested in knowing how you went about acquiring the rights to these songs because I understand it can be very pricey.
JW:Definitely. For us, on both movies, we worked with awesome music supervisors. On the Ranger, we worked with Middagh Goodwin, who used to be a punk band promoter in the ‘80s. So he was just hitting up all his friends asking if they wanted to be part of this movie. On the Sacrifice Game, we had music supervisors at AMG, and they had tons of contacts with lots of different bands. One of my favorite parts of the process of making a movie is when you have your cut and your picture locked, and then your music supervisors are sending you music. Then you’re starting to look at each scene and look at how it feels with this song, how does a song change the tone, how does it change the vibe of the scene? I just love that process so much.
The song that opens the movie is “Kill My Baby Tonight” by L.A. Witch. And that was a song that was on my inspiration playlist for the movie. With every movie that I’m developing or going into production on, I create a playlist. These are the sounds of the movie, these are the vibes of the movies, and that one was number one on that list. I also create a playlist for each of the actors too, to get them in the world of the movie sonically. After we shot that scene while we were on set, I went home to my hotel room, and I cut that scene together and I put that song in our cut. And I showed it to the producers on set, and all of us were looking at the shot, hearing the song, and everyone was saying “We have to get this song!” And then we made it happen!
“…for the Sacrifice Game, I took a sigil making class run by this occult bookstore in Brooklyn.”
NOFS: Is there a certain band, punk or otherwise, that you would like to have in a future film?
JW: I think it’s so dependent on what the project is. I really like discovering music based on the story and the themes of that story and the world of the story. But I do have a playlist that I keep of music for movies. Every time I hear a song that I think would be good for a movie, it’s in there so I can go back to it. I would say “Gloria” by Laura Branigan. I want to make a movie that features that song in a very epic way. It’s already so epic, so what is the right scene to match that song? That would be a dream song to use in a film.
NOFS: What was your experience working with Chloë Levine and Heather Buckley again?
JW:They are two of my best friends! Actually, they were both bridesmaids at our wedding. (laughs) Heather had this dope red devil tuxedo that she wore. I like making movies with my friends. After the Ranger, when we started diving deep into the Sacrifice Game script together, he had Chloë on our mind for Rose. It’s really lovely to work with somebody who you’re close to and you’ve already worked with because you’ve already developed your language, so when you get on set, you can sink right back into that creative language.
NOFS: I’m noticing a recurring theme in your movies of sigils being carved into skin. Do you normally do a lot of research into the occult and paganism?
JW:I always like to leave it a bit mysterious. I don’t want to know too much because I also want to leave space for the deep things in my subconscious that I want to bring to it. But I will say, for the Sacrifice Game, I took a sigil making class run by this occult bookstore in Brooklyn. I made this sigil [seen in the movie]. And part of making this sigil was me willing this movie into existence. I did a little bit of research for the Ranger, where the upside-down triangle means earth. That made sense for that movie. For this, it has a more personal meaning (I’m pointing to my arm because I have a temporary tattoo that we made for the Sacrifice Game). But I did take this class, and when you’re trying to will something into existence, it teaches you how to create a sigil for that. It was very cool.
“…part of making this sigil was me willing this movie into existence.”
NOFS: If you had an unlimited budget, what would your dream project be?
JW:There are so many! Here’s one: I want to make a horror movie version of the game Mall Madness. So I’m putting that out into the universe. Hasbro, if you read this, and you want to make Mall Madness, hit me up! It’s a board game from the ‘80s, and you go shopping and whoever buys the most stuff, wins the game. It’s celebrating commercialism and consumerism. I’m from New Jersey and I grew up in mall culture. I would like to make my own mall movie. And it would be really fun to take the ideas and the rules of the game, and explore in terms of a horror movie. And I want the “Downtown” song [by Petula Clark]!
NOFS: This last question I stole from my editors because they usually ask every guest this on the podcast, but if you could program a drive-in double feature, what would the two movies be?
JW:Oh my goodness! I feel I was just talking about this, I think I had said Heathers and Jawbreaker. That would be great.
NOFS: Anything else that you would like to add, that you want our readers to know?
JW:Go watch the Sacrifice Game! It’s coming to Shudder later this year. And our sales company Red Sea Media is handling the rest of the world, so I hope you check it out!
“Iwant to make a horror movie version of the game Mall Madness. […] Hasbro, hit me up!”
Jenn Wexler’s The Sacrifice Gamecelebrated its world premiere at the 2023 Fantasia Film Festival and will be coming to Shudder later in the year. Click HERE to follow our continued coverage of the festival and let us know your favorite ’70s tunes over Twitter, Threads, or in the Nightmare on Film Street Discord! Not a social media fan? Get more horror delivered straight to your inbox by joining the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.