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“Sacrifice” Film Review: Sinister Barbara Crampton Performance Entangled in Underdeveloped Lovecraft-Inspired Folk Horror

The depths of the unknown, especially in these turbulent times, will always serve as a source of fear and anxiety. Would it be truly out of place if Cthulhu emerged from the sea, given all that’s happened over the past year? Cosmic horror, namely under the influence of infamous author and retroactively acknowledged racist H.P. Lovecraft, has seen a revival in recent years, from straight adaptations such as Richard Stanley’s “Color Out of Space,” and Misha Green’s deconstructionist HBO series “Lovecraft Country.” 

“Sacrifice,” directed by Andy Collier and Toor Mian (“Charismata”), joins the bunch, setting its sights on an innocent couple who unwittingly stumble into a Norwegian sect that practices sacramental ceremonies to a ‘mythical’ watery beast. And Barbara Crampton is there too. There’s a lot of potential beneath the surface, but “Sacrifice” tends to struggle enveloping its tentacles around a story worthy of its dreamy visualizations.

Isaac (Ludovic Hughes) travels from New York to an isolated Norwegian island off the coast with his pregnant wife Emma (Sophie Stevens) to appraise his childhood home, having inherited the abandoned property in his late mother’s will. He has little to no recollection of what life was like when he left the island as a child. The community, in time, bring out the welcome wagon as they learn of his return. Once the couple is informed about an underwater legend the townsfolk refer to as ‘The Slumbering One,’ they begin to experience nightmares that feel explicitly real. 

The opening credits are quick to inform that this is not a direct adaptation of one of Lovecraft’s stories, but merely ‘inspired’ by his cosmic mythology. “Sacrifice” is actually taken from Paul Kane’s short story, entitled “Men of the Cloth.” And with that knowledge, you can clearly recognize the little tributes strewn throughout that insinuate how it aims to emulate the unspeakable horror of Lovecraft’s stories without capturing their appeal.

“Sacrifice” I Epic Pictures Group

What confounds me is that the first half of “Sacrifice” maintains a good rhythm in which Isaac and Emma become acquainted with the Norwegian townsfolk. When they catch wind of Isaac’s maiden name, their attitudes, initially rude and hostile, flip on a dime, illuminating a potential mystery as to its significance. And then the intrigue starts to dissipate. The glaring issue, unfortunately, stems from underwritten characters that just happen to be occupied by wonderful actors. 

Hughes and Stevens pick up the slack, but the emotional center within their relationship is oddly hollow. Without much insight as to Isaac’s temperament prior to his bizarre homecoming, the impact of his transitional shift, as the presence of the indescribable ‘The Slumbering One’ latches onto him, is minimal. Further relationship turmoil arises when some of the bar patrons fill his head with patriarchal idealism and other misogynistic leanings, a rudimentary development that doesn’t go anywhere.

Barbara Crampton in “Sacrifice” I Epic Pictures Group

The foreboding ambience of “Sacrifice” works best when Barbara Crampton (“Castle Freak”) is steering the ship. Those familiar with her filmography are keenly aware that the horror icon is well-versed in her experience with cosmic horror, having worked with director Stuart Gordon on such classics as “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond.” Here she plays Renate, the local sheriff who comes knocking on Isaac’s door, inquiring about the unknown circumstances that led to his father’s death over two decades ago.

Behind Renate’s beguiling hospitality is someone who knows much more than they lead on. The always-great Crampton is as slyly sinister as she is an inviting presence, carrying over her dubious smile from “Culture Shock” to form a character whose eager devotion to pleasing ‘The Slumbering One’ is creepier than any cosmic tentacle monster. 

You can tell that “Sacrifice” is proud to have shot on location in Volda, Norway, capturing the spacious waters and imposing mountain terrain of the island with enough wide shots to fill a tourist promo. Collier gets in some spectacular scenery, namely as Emma and Isaac make their arrival on the boat. Coupled with Tom Linden’s ominous — sometimes oppressive — composition, they’re a helpless speck in the vastness of this isolated environment. 

Sophie Stevens in “Sacrifice” I Epic Pictures Group

The directing duo also play with clever edits such as a black liquid, which devours Isaac in a nightmare, that smoothly transitions into Emma cooking hard-boiled eggs in a pot. The formless fluidity of water serves as a clever motif in conjunction with the briny abode of the town legend. There are certainly creeps to be found within the eldritch foundation. 

When it comes to either elaborating upon the island’s long-unsolved mystery or embracing its ambiguity, “Sacrifice” opts for a momentarily interesting, yet disappointing sampling of each. With another draft or two, there could be something stronger here to work with. As is, “Sacrifice,” ultimately, doesn’t leave you with much to stew on after reaching its perplexing conclusion.

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