Synopsis – A group of college friends reunite for a trip to the forest, but encounter a menacing presence in the woods that’s stalking them.
My Take – If there is one thing that horror films have taught us, well other than walking into abandoned houses for fun, is to never go into the woods. Sure, at first it may seem like a good idea to go in with a bunch of friends to camp in an unknown territory, but from what mother nature and films like The Blair Witch Project, Friday the 13th, Cabin in the Woods etc has taught us that the woods has a level of mystery that can get the best of anyone. While, this film from director David Bruckner does offer the same lost in the woods shtick that is so common in the Survivalist Horror sub genre, it is also surprisingly intriguing as the film unexpectedly uses its standard plot and morphs it into something far greater and more obscure than I had initially anticipated hereby creating a truly haunting viewing experience. This British horror film that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September was quickly acquired by Netflix for a fraction of the reportedly $50 million the company paid for the space flop The Cloverfield Paradox, and is exactly that type of modestly scaled discovery that the streaming giant should be making more of. Here, director David Bruckner, who is mostly known for directing brilliant segments in horror anthologies like The Signal, V/H/S, and Southbound, has created a film which is what the Blair Witch reboot could have been, well minus the found footage, as the film is both evocative and a psychological horror of occult implications and, in some ways, a creature feature, combining tonally separate horror sub-genre trappings into a cohesive whole. Based on the 2011 novel by Adam Nevill, the story follows Luke (Rafe Spall), who along with his friends, Phil (Arsher Ali), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), and Dom (Sam Troughton) goes on a hiking expedition in Sweden to honor the memory of their deceased pal Robert (Paul Reid).
While Luke still holds himself responsible for the death of his friend and continues to hold his guilt close to him, there is an underlying animosity from the others because of the incident, which fuels some friction between the group, who would otherwise swap some genuinely funny banter like a close-knit gang of long-term friends. However, when Dom injures his knee, they decide that its time they pack up their gear and head back into town, as Hutch suggests that they cut their journey back into half by going through the woods, not knowing what awaits in the Swedish forest is something made of Norse mythology, witchcraft, black shadows and haunting nightmares of the most inconceivable unknown. Here, director David Bruckner tells a familiar story but with a careful, slow-burn approach that is effective with rare extravagance, that is folded in plenty of gruesome, B-film aspects, all the while holding on to just enough character for the horror to pull us in close. The setup in the first half which includes the ensemble and bottled-up resentment will remind you of Neil Marshall’s The Descent, while the arboreal frustrations owe something to the original Blair Witch Project, a film that’s often underrated as a document of psychological devolution, while also succeeding in building up the lore of the monster until its eventual reveal. To his credit, director Bruckner handles all this set-up with a steady hand: the mountains look incredible, the tension is carefully modulated, and the performances don’t have that direct-to-DVD vibe that has hobbled prior Netflix horror releases. The opening sequence of the film doesn’t aim to unsettle you right away. The key to any good horror film has always been having characters that are realistic and that the audience can relate to and care for. Yet so many horror films completely overlook this element in their film. This film does not make this mistake. These characters are highly flawed, but they’re also relatable and we as an audience can understand (if not fully agree with) choices and decisions they’ve made. The film builds tension well for a while, as the stress and mystery of the situation intensifies the already strained relationships of the men, who’ve grown apart as post-university life has evolved into an adulthood of wives and children—and at least one of the friends blames Luke for Robert’s bludgeoning. But it is in the second act, where the film turns surreal, as the men’s nightmares begin playing out in waking terrors. Their characters are tested as they navigate a psycho topography of terror and disgrace, stalked and picked off by an ancient Nordic god. It’s striking, the ways in which director Bruckner, author and writer Nevill, and screenwriter Joe Barton are able to so cleverly reconcile the story’s themes of grief, guilt, and cowardice with the horror at its center. Flashbacks to Robert’s death add elements of psychological horror and blur the lines between dreamlike curiosity and a distressing nightmare. For Luke, this means reliving a traumatic event in the liquor store, which re-emerges all over the labyrinthine forest. Florescent lights buzz to life, lighting the dark night with a terrible hum. Shelves stocked with liquor block his view of the beast that stalks him and then there’s the blood, his regrets haunt him and thrill us, brightly set against a dark landscape that trembles with new threats. Luke’s deep pain and exhaustion is almost palpable during the hike and the brief conversations he shares among the group. He is not only emotionally distanced from his friends, but the camera almost always frames him alone or intentionally leaving a gap between him and his three remaining companions. Luke feels alone in his suffering as everyone is constantly reminded of Robert’s absence. His consuming guilt over the death of Robert translates to some of the most visually surreal elements of the film.
The atmosphere and intense despair of Luke presents some of the most horrifying elements of the film is what ends up haunting more than the monster. The horror elements are where the film truly shines, with exception to the first five minutes of the film where the friends having fun at the bar, the film sticks to a consistent creepy tone. The eerie background music, the off-kilter camera angles, and the ritualistic props provide an uneasy and chilling tone. While watching, it became clear that there wouldn’t be a break from that dread in the pit in your stomach; we are ripped right from the shooting to the mountains of Sweden. There was never a time to relax. The editing and music made it clear something unnatural was happening in those woods and this experience wasn’t going to be a fun one. While, I personally think diving into Occult stuff can be tricky mainly as the world of horror is over-saturated with vaguely Lovecraftian doom, so it’s rare for a new horror film to effectively convey, rather than just riff, on a sense of overwhelming oppressiveness that crushes the characters under the weight of a violent inevitability. Thankfully, this film absolutely nails this aspect. Its creepiness is reminiscent of occult genre bests but arguably exceeds them. I think that apart from the location, the sound design is the star here. There are some truly gut-wrenching noises and jump scares that don’t rely on the over-used screeching violin/Psycho-scare noises that soundtrack often saturate scary moments with. The whole production sounds incredible. And it looks overwhelming too – David Bruckner directs beautifully throughout. Another unavoidable obligation of a monster picture, supernatural or otherwise, is the payoff of the monster at the end. How good is the monster and is there a satisfactory explanation about its origins? This is most frequently the element where most monster pictures drop the ball. While there are those that seem to take issue with it, in my opinion the film comes across with a perfectly good and scary monster that’s entirely appropriate for a creepy old forest and I commend the makers of the film for giving us something pretty darn original into the bargain. However, the ending is wholly unexpected and oddly satisfying, though it will likely be polarizing for just those very reasons. The only really negative note I have is that the creature evidently has the ability to cause horrifying visions in the minds of its targeted victims as well as other mind influencing games. The vision we see repeatedly is that of the liquor store robbery in which their friend was killed as viewed by the character who feels personal guilt over that death. We also see a vision of one of the member’s wife supplanting the approaching monster in the sacrifice scene. What role these visions play was never clear to me and seems to me to have been added to the film simply for unexplained effect. In addition to this, the characters don’t really develop throughout the film. Other than Luke, no one else seems to have a purpose or a back-story to them. However, the performances are good overall, mainly as the cast shares a good chemistry and are believable as long-time friends. Led by Rafe Spall, who one may recognize from Edgar Wright films like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End, who does a good job of portraying the everyman character with a bit of bite, but also just enough soul to make you root for him. He is ably supported by Asher Ali, Robert James-Collier and Sam Troughton who are all perfectly cast, and play their parts well. Paul Reid is also good in a small role. On the whole, ‘The Ritual’ is a captivating horror film, which despite its imperfections offers up a gripping balance of psychological terror and almost perfect execution.
Directed – David Bruckner
Rated – R
Run Time – 94 minutes