First installment in NBC’s 13-part horror anthology — a relatively safe-for-primetime take on Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” — displays astute attention to detail and craft, even if it does not necessarily scare the bejesus out of viewers. Script by show creator Mick Garris and ensemble acting are serviceable but pale in comparison to the cinematography of Attila Szalay, production design of Stephen Geaghan and Brian Tyler’s tension-inducing orchestral score.
The time is winter, the landscape barren in “The Sacrifice,” and the palette of Szalay’s camera emphasizes the rust and deterioration of the woods and a rustic fort where the action occurs. Four men in an SUV with a canoe find themselves stuck in this lifeless world, their car mysteriously breaking down after hitting some detritus on the road.
One of them, Diego (Stephen Martines), is injured, and two are brothers: Point (Jeffrey Pierce) is the brains and Lemmon (Jesse Plemons) the pesky and probing younger sibling.
Director Breck Eisner switches back and forth between closeups and distant panoramas in the first two reels to establish the vast emptiness that surrounds the quartet and the cockiness that fuels the group. While much of “The Sacrifice” sticks to horror conventions — axes, a creature, a clergyman, a backstory that involves Romania — Eisner allows his key male quartet to exhibit recklessness rather than fear.
They find their way to a wooden fort where three gorgeous sisters (Rachel Miner, Mircea Monroe, Michelle Molineux) live a mysterious, self-sufficient, Amish-like lifestyle. One appears to be a seductress, one poses as a mothering sort, and the mute girl is a portrait artist; naturally, the boys’ libido rises, leading to nasty repercussions.
Secrets gradually emerge — except for an answer as to why these guys are so well armed — and it’s not until the closing scene that the “fate worse than death” is revealed. Though a bit slow in places and not necessarily the type of horror film that will thrill fans of franchises such as “Saw,” “The Sacrifice” is a quality summertime diversion.
Pierce has the meatiest role and winds up as the most convincing and striking of the performers. He has a steady presence — think Matthew Fox on “Lost” — and his nuanced performance gains strength as the hourlong progresses. If “Sacrifice” telegraphs anything about a third of the way through, it’s the sense that the smartest survive, and indeed it has such a payoff. To a degree.