The Ritual is a horror film that manages to graze a long list of standard horror tropes and still turn out a well made film that’s familiar-ish, but more effective than anything I’ve seen in a while.
Netflix has plenty of horror films, and fans of the genre have a tough time slogging through the muck to find gold. The Ritual was already on my radar from last year’s trailer. It got a theatrical release in the UK before international rights were scooped up by Netflix. Netflix picking up a movie doesn’t always bode well, but I feel in this case it saved this film from obscurity. No big names attached and a director who’s mostly contributed short films to larger projects (The Signal, Southbound, V/H/S), it would’ve sputtered at the box office, but here it has a chance to build the cult following it deserves.
It doesn’t exactly do anything new, but it does what it does VERY well. The slow-burn nature and some uneven pacing towards the end may turn some off, but horror fans who appreciate movies that build unease into terror will love it.
Director: David Bruckner
Release Date: February 9, 2018 (Netflix in the US and most other territories)
October 13, 2017 (Theatrically in the UK)
The movie starts in a pub in Great Britain, introducing all of our main characters at once and keeping setup exposition to a minimum. They’re just five random friends, with enough casually mentioned minor details to give you a general idea of the lives they lead. They’re approaching middle age and having their first hint at a midlife crisis. The five of them plan a getaway and know they’ve outgrown Ibiza and Amsterdam and want to do something more adult.
The five are reduced to four by senseless tragedy, in an incident seen only by the main character Luke (Rafe Spall). The dead friend’s idea of hiking in the Swedish wilderness is taken up as a pilgrimage in his honor.
This setting allows common tropes to play out in realistic ways. They’re separated from civilization, their cellphones don’t work, and they might be overconfident in their ability to navigate the forest. The trip takes a turn when one friend, Dom (Sam Troughton), twists his knee, and they need to take a shortcut off the beaten path to get him to safety.
This alone is the setup for a horror film. Spooky shit nonwithstanding, getting injured and potentially lost in unfamiliar woods is a situation nobody wants, but one you could realistically find yourself in. Not only do Sweden’s forests have bears and wolves, but I’m pretty sure a moose would fuck you right up, if startled. Nature is scary, y’all.
So they’ve already got all that to worry about when they stumble across a gutted deer hanging among trees covered in distinctly witchy-looking runes. Unless there’s a teenage brown bear going through a Wiccan phase, there are now deep-forest human weirdos in the mix.
This is a situation in most movies where you’d be yelling at them to just turn back, but…that’s the thing. They’re already in the process of turning back. They’re already trying to GTFO and just picked a bad path that they’re more or less stuck with. They’re soon forced to seek shelter by a thunderstorm, and wouldn’t you know it, the only thing on Swedish forest AirBnB is a spooky-ass abandoned cabin. Your gut instinct is to shout YO DON’T GO IN THERE, but again, they risk death from exposure if they sleep outside. Have you ever tried pitching a tent in the wind/rain? It’s hard enough as-is when you usually spend your vacations in Vegas. This movie’s good at putting realistic spins on tired horror tropes, and I’m all for it.
They light a fire in the cabin’s stove and go to sleep, and proceed to have terrifying experiences. You only get to see Luke’s perspective, and he’s forced to relive his guilt surrounding their friend’s death. The dream has a surreal bent to it, to the point that I half-joked that the flue of the stove was blocked, and the rest of the movie was a carbon monoxide-induced Jacob’s Ladder style death dream. While we don’t get to see the dreams of the others, they clearly didn’t have fun nights either. Knowing the title of the movie, obviously some supernatural occult shit is going down, but it could all be rationalized as stress-induced nightmares.
This is around where discussing anything about the plot gets spoilery, so I’ll shift gears.
The movie’s cinematography is as breathtaking as it is unnerving. Long shots of the landscape convey the enormity of the forest. The four friends travel from the background to foreground and you get a sense of how small they are compared to the trees. Point-of-view shots get you feeling disoriented and you realize how much the trees obstruct both vision and movement. The forest seems to entirely consist of trees with stripped, spiky lower branches, adding another element of menace. The ambiance of loneliness and dread seep out of every scene.
I’ve heard unfavorable comparisons between this film and The Blair Witch Project, and I don’t really buy it. Aside from involving the woods, neglected cabins, and occultish things, they’re not that similar. As I’ve said, it does many standard horror movie things, but it does them better than most. The idiot Blair Witch characters also went LOOKING for spooky shit, whereas these guys are more worried about a bear coming after their pic-a-nic baskets when something much, much worse is waiting for them.
Several jump scares, that fall flat, are an effort to illustrate the declining sanity of and trust between the friends. I get what they were going for, but removing them early on could’ve given us a much more tonally consistent building of dread leading into the final act. Fortunately, The Ritual relies more on ‘did I see something or not’ scenes that evolve into ‘I saw something but what the hell was it’ for most of the first two acts.
Luke’s guilt over their friend’s death is portrayed in a way that seems a little forced, but does ultimately serve a function in the story and at least produces some very cool, surreal scenes. The film made the mistake of a major conflict between the friends coming after Luke is briefly separated from the group and sees something that proves they’re not alone in the woods. Having a squabble knowing full well there’s something RIGHT THERE felt off. They could’ve easily put the fight first and had him storm off, and it would’ve had a much more believable flow.
The film gives you enough brief glimpses of [SCARY THING] to the point that I thought I knew what I was looking at, until it came into sudden, startling focus. I won’t spoil it with a description, but the design of [SCARY THING] is unlike anything I’ve seen in ages. I’m thoroughly impressed with what they came up with. It pulls off the rare trick of first freaking you out because you can’t really see it, and then freaking you out even harder because seeing it doesn’t diminish its effectiveness.
I also appreciated that it did the bare minimum of exposition so you’re not left wondering what [SCARY THING] is or who forest weirdos are, either. The character who provides the explanation also makes sense, and their motivation and identity is easy to piece together without further exposition bogging the story down.
Overall, the final act could use tighter editing, as the pace slows right when the movie should become frantic. Luke’s afterthought character development puts a cap on the whole guilt thing, but it doesn’t feel realistic, or necessary, aside from wrapping up a plot thread that already felt forced. He could’ve bolted when he got the chance, arms waggling in the air Kermit the Frog style, and it would’ve still worked.
If you like slow-burn horror a la The Descent, this will be an instant favorite for you. I think the only reason it skipped theaters outside the UK is that the director, actors, and novel it’s based on aren’t particularly well known elsewhere, and it’s not quite good enough to justify a major release.
The Ritual is available for streaming on Netflix in the US and most territories outside the UK.