February 13, 2018
‘The Ritual’ Conjures Up Familiar, Forgettable Horror [Review]
For a horror film that places prominence on the forest as a hotspot for all things evil, it’s nice to finally see (aside from maybe “The Witch”) the camera just sit and pan in (or out) as you gaze into verdant scenery before realizing you might be looking at something more sinister off into the distance. Against this background, there’s a simple prevailing rule: don’t enter the woods — especially at night.
Netflix’s latest addition to their catalog, “The Ritual,” directed by David Bruckner, documents the journey of four friends (Luke, Phil, Hutch and Dom) who go hiking in remote northern Sweden to remember their violently murdered friend Robert (Paul Reid).
The events of the film quickly descend into the realm of horror once Hutch (Robert James-Collier) convinces the others to take a detour through the forest to get back to shelter. Taking this shortcut, the friends come across a gutted deer hanging in a tree. From this point on, the group becomes overwhelmed by panic and a hellish slew of sinister nightmares and pagan sacrifices. These woods foster an evil Nordic deity that causes them to face the darkness hiding within themselves, especially Luke (Rafe Spall), who is trying to shed some deep-seated guilt as a result of having been the one friend who witnessed Robert’s brutal murder.
Across modern literature and cinema, the “evil forest” motif has dominated the horror genre, representing the unknown (and potentially dark) side of nature. The wilderness is an untamed place often hostile to humanity, which is most certainly the case in “The Ritual.” Bruckner makes evocative use of the barren Scandinavian backdrop, capturing an unhinged sense of unease and isolation that helps deliver a complex and overarching vibe of grief. Unfortunately, that atmosphere can’t overcome a gratingly familiar and rushed horror story.
As mentioned above, “The Ritual” presents a mixture of tropes that brings to mind “The Witch,” “Blair Witch” and “Deliverance.” Unfortunately, these tropes form a forgettable horror film brought down by uneven pacing. With the prior in mind, Bruckner’s film could also have benefited with some additional anthropological exposition present in the novel by Adam Nevill (who also co-wrote the screenplay).
Even with the film’s eerily commonplace storyline, “The Ritual” uniquely wields the environment to its advantage as Bruckner uses it as a springboard to devise suspenseful sequences. However, this emphasis on mood doesn’t necessarily translate well to the buddy-film-like narrative of “The Ritual.” And while the plot does kick off with a bang (Robert’s death), what seems like a good launchpad for thorough character development in the first half, soon becomes a drowning mess of scares dictated by an evil force that doesn’t ever feel too intimidating. Thus, the ability to really connect to any of the characters is completely lost in the film’s third act of rushed theatrics and lack of complexity.
Aside from being able to immediately predict which single character will end up having to face the “evil” in the end, the complete unveiling of the film’s “monster” (or evil) in the third act completely undoes the tension effectively built up during acts one and two. Unfortunately, Bruckner exposes the film’s secrets too abruptly, thus spoiling the film’s sustained mystique. Most of the ”horror” in the film is centralized within the second act — but the true terror comes from each friend discovering their inner fears and demons. Once the film moves into its third act “The Ritual” begins to lose its way, and the closer it comes to its eponymous ritual the less tense it gets, as the finale introduces a visually uninteresting and undeveloped creature — a shame considering prior to the evil deity’s reveal, Bruckner handled the film’s scare-factor with a restraint that allowed the infrequent yet visceral splashes of gore to truly have an impact.
While “The Ritual” is an incredibly shot and confident horror picture that does manage to crank up the tension for the first hour, an unfulfilling finale and subpar execution of commonplace motifs add up to a forgettable experience. Bruckner had all the ingredients for a horror masterpiece — deceptively scenic wilderness shots, great character camaraderie, dreadful atmosphere/setting— but “The Ritual” winds up as a missed opportunity. [C-]