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“SACRIFICE” (2016; Movie Review)

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The innate intelligence actress Radha Mitchell brings to her role helps maintain a modicum of interest in SACRIFICE, which is more an investigative procedural than a true horror film.

Based on the highly regarded debut novel by mystery author Sharon (a.k.a. S.J.) Bolton and opening in select theaters and on VOD today, SACRIFICE does have an attention-grabbing opening that tweaks expectations. An on-the-job misfortune takes Dr. Tora Hamilton (Mitchell) from her Manhattan hospital workplace to her husband Duncan’s (Rupert Graves) ancestral home on one of the Shetland Islands off Scotland (played by very picturesque Irish locations). Duncan’s father Richard (David Robb) is a big fish in the small pond of this community, and helps the couple quickly find an attractive home and good jobs. Most importantly, he puts the wheels in motion for Tora, who has experienced several failed pregnancies, and Duncan to adopt a child.

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The only thing Tora doesn’t get is someone to help dig the oversized grave when a horse drops dead on her property, so she takes a backhoe to the earth herself—and makes an unpleasant discovery. A young woman’s body, bearing signs of ritualistic murder, is pulled from the peat that has preserved it—for over a century, according to the local authorities. But Tora isn’t so sure, and is the only one to deduce that the victim had given birth shortly before she was killed, leading her to turn amateur sleuth and uncover further evidence of a sinister conspiracy on the island.

The pieces are in place for a WICKER MAN-esque examination of evil rooted within a traditional enclave, but under writer/director Peter A. Dowling (who wrote the superior Jodie Foster thriller FLIGHTPLAN and scripted/helmed the subterranean shocker STAG NIGHT), it plays out as all too cut-and-dried. While Mitchell is a naturally compelling presence and maintains sympathy for Tora, the scenario hits consistently familiar beats as she questions the locals, is warned off the case by higher-ups, goes poking around places she shouldn’t, etc. It’s the kind of movie where Tora is looking at some ancient runes while seated in a pub, and an old drunk who passes her table just happens to be a font of knowledge about them. This meeting leads to a few hints of the supernatural being dropped, but they don’t amount to anything, and the true nature of the malevolence is signaled too early for much of a sense of mystery to take hold.

A couple of other promising themes are raised—most notably the way a male-dominated society asserts control over women’s rights regarding their own bodies—but SACRIFICE never makes more of them than standard thriller tropes. Dowling’s direction of these is workmanlike—more effective than the herky-jerky camerawork in STAG NIGHT—and he gets the pulse racing a bit with a car chase and a sequence with Tora searching and being chased through a hospital after dark. Other than that gruesomely scarred and desiccated body, though, there’s not much actual horror in SACRIFICE, and the story’s more disturbing implications are sublimated to generic whodunit concerns right through to the end. There are a couple of attempts at surprise reversals in the final act, but even here, any real shock value winds up being sacrificed to disappointingly conventional concerns.

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.
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