[This is a re-post of our The Ritual review from the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. The film is now available to stream on Netflix.]
If there’s one thing that horror movies have taught us, it’s that no one should ever go into the woods. Nothing good happens there. And if you’re heading into woods with a group of longtime friends who share a fraught history? Good lord. It’s going to be a bloody mess. That’s a fact. It’s a trope. One that’s been used to death in movies like The Evil Dead and The Blair Witch Project and all of their knock offs and inspirations. So, The Ritual isn’t bringing much that’s particularly new to the horror genre. Matter of fact, the flick is deliberately trotting out a bunch of old tricks and jamming them together to see if they turn into something new. Sure, it doesn’t make for a particularly unexpected genre romp, but as a feature length show reel for The Signal and Southbound director David Bruckner, it’s proof that the guy has serious talent. So that’s something.
The four friends heading into this particular patch of spook woods are played by Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, and Sam Troughton. There actually used to be fifth member of the ol’ college posse, but he died. He was murdered actually, in a liquor store murder gone wrong and Spall was there, but too scared to help. Now it’s a year later and the gang are taking a hiking trip in the Swedish mountains to pay tribute to the departed buddy. Obviously that’s a rough one for Rafe Spall who blames himself for the death and frequently has nightmares and flashbacks. The rest of the gang all resent him a bit as well. So that makes for a rather unpleasant time. They’re also all fairly out of shape, so this whole mountain hike thing gets on their nerves after a few days and they decide to take a short cut through some woods to get to a pub quickly and salvage a bit of the vacation. Not a wise idea. Want to hear a worse one? Spending a night in a creepy abandoned cabin when it rains. Especially when that cabin is filled with odd cult-like symbols and artifacts. The gang all have horrible nightmares that evening and wake up in unexpected places. Next thing you know, it seems like they’re being pursued by something mysterious. So yeah, never go in to the woods in a horror movie.
Based on a novel Adam Nevill, The Ritual often feels like an interior drama about grief and trauma as much as it does a horror movie (you know, horror as metaphor and so forth). The book likely pushed this aspect even father than the film. For director David Brucker, that’s just one subgenre of the cinematic horror that he hopes to burn through in a trim 95 minutes. Brucker’s work previously popped up in a few horror anthology films (including the rather excellent “Amateur Night” from V/H/S), so the guy clearly loves the genre and uses this film as a means to strengthen a variety of his horror director muscles. There’s plenty of psychological horror since the movie come’s from Spall’s point of view with all of the nightmarish flashbacks and breakdowns that implies. There are also some nasty survival horror beats and the out-of-shape Brits struggle to survive the elements. Surrealism pops up whenever the guys go to sleep. Jump scares come like jump scares do. There’s a big monster. There’s a cult. Put them together and it all gets Lovecraftian with some truly uncanny imagery. Brucker tries on all the hats and shows off. Better still, he knows what he’s doing so it works.
There are some fantastic scenes and set pieces in The Ritual from the brutal opening robbery to the final nightmarish chase scenes. It’s all slickly shot and designed. The gore is impactful without being excessive. The performances are fantastic (especially Spall who excels as the pained eyed lead), to sell the subtle stuff. The monster design is creative. The locations are viscerally remote. The flick hits enough off the right beats and prove that David Bruckner knows how to handle this genre in a variety of ways. The trouble is that this hodgepodge homage to horror tropes never really develops much of it’s own identiy. It just tends to serve up a bunch of leftovers from other horror flicks, cleverly rearranged to feel like a kew one. It’s so well shot, designed, and acted that in the moment it all registers and feels fun. But afterwards, memories fade quickly because it’s all so familiar. That’s a shame, yet at the same time it’s still a perfectly fun and fine genre romp. David Bruckner at least succeeded in proving he’s a promising genre director who knows what he’s doing. Now let’s hope that next time he’s got a script with some more ingenuity and fresh scares that he can apply his talents too. This one is a bit stale.