Don’t overlook this strong, fresh entry into the horror genre
My esteemed colleague Frank Calvillo already talked about The Ritual in his regular streaming column, but seeing as how The Ritual, like most movies and shows that debut on Netflix, has already faded from the cultural conversation, I figured it’d be good to remind folks that this movie not only exists, but really should be a must-see for all horror fans.
Because what we have here is a meat-and-potatoes horror film that does exactly what you hope for from such fare: It plays all the familiar notes expertly while adding its own unique beats, creating something that feels both classical and totally fresh. The Ritual is a fright-flick that works from first moment to last, without a single weak link in the cast and without a misstep in its escalating madness and terror.
That it features maybe the best new movie monster in decades is just icing.
Adapted from a novel by Adam Nevil, The Ritual follows four friends, Luke (Rafe Spall), Phil (Arsher Ali), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), and Dom (Sam Troughton), on a hiking trip through the hills of Sweden. A fifth friend, Rob, has recently been killed in a liquor store robbery gone wrong, and the trip is as much to commemorate his memory as anything else. But as they begin to head back, Dom trips and twists his ankle, so the group decides to take a short cut (hardy har har) through a nearby forest.
There are tell-tale signs for all genre-lovers that things are amiss within them there trees, up to and including the discovery of what appears to be a gutted bear hung from the branches of a tree and odd pagan-ish symbols carved into the fauna.
But things don’t start going really really wrong until the gang seeks shelter from a storm in what appears to be a deserted cottage, only to discover…uh…something upstairs. And that night, they are afflicted with traumatizing dreams that leave actual physical damage.
Physical and emotional conditions quickly spiral, especially as two things become increasingly clear: 1) They are hopelessly lost with no clear way out of the woods. And 2) Something is hunting them.
Director David Bruckner has been coming up for a while, contributing segments to anthology films like The Signal, V/H/S, Southbound, and doing a generally great job with these bite-sized supernatural tales. After a few false starts (he was at one point slated to make a Friday the 13th movie), Bruckner has finally gotten his shot at a feature, and you can sense his hunger going into every sequence, every frame. There’s a restraint to The Ritual, and a sense of patience, but you always sense one hand on the throttle, pushing the film to wilder and wilder places.
It helps that the supernatural horror is grounded in very real emotion. Before anything especially scary happens, the group is already strained by tension arising from the fact that Luke was in the liquor store with Rob and did nothing to help his friend, leading the others to at least partially blame him for the other man’s death. Luke knows it too, and may even himself agree with it.
Part of how the…let’s call it ‘the entity’…attacks is by pummeling its prey psychologically with hallucinogenic visions, and so Luke is forced to re-live that night over and over again, resulting in surreal sequences of the store and the bloody tableau being recreated in the forest. Spall, who’s been a reliable character actor for a while now (going back to Shaun of the Dead! He delivered the first, “You’ve got red on you”!) comes to his leading role with the same hunger that Bruckner brings behind the camera. Luke’s not really a chatty fellow, even before he’s running for his life, but Spall’s face is endlessly interesting to watch as he thinks, panics, freaks, worries, etc. It’s far and away the movie’s best special effect, which is really saying something because the actual monster is top-notch.
Oh yeah, the monster. Lookit, I’m all for the ‘less is more’ tactic when it comes to horror. Maybe the scariest movie-watching experience of my life was The Blair Witch Project, and all that had was little fucking twig things and sloppy camerawork. It’s a well-trod cliché that showing the monster ruins the monster, and the best, most esteemed fright-flicks work as well as they do because they refuse to give the audience the catharsis of a visible monster or ghoul or what-have-you (there are actually many many many exceptions to this school of thought, but academia tends to forget about these in its rush to suck off The Haunting again).
And, again, that’s a choice I admire and frequently agree with. Less is often more, and what you don’t see is often more scary than what you do see.
But, fuck, man, sometimes you just want to see a movie go for it. Put its money where its mouth is, roll the dice, swing for the fences, whatever metaphor you want to use. You want a film to throw caution to the wind and deliver something spectacular, something you’ve never really seen before.
The Ritual delivers in spades, and while I would never dream of spoiling what the entity is that causes so much grief and terror to Luke and his pals, suffice to say that Bruckner is surgical in how he teases out and reveals aspects about the nature and history of his monster while still leaving much of its behavior shrouded in mystery. The actual creature itself is a modern triumph of design and combining practical and digital effects, resulting in something that is both iconic (in the Guillermo del Toro sense, where a monster’s effectiveness is determined by how recognizable it is by its outline) and yet inscrutable, alien, and truly monstrous.
The Ritual is not a genre entry that seeks to rewrite the rules of the genre. For that, well, Annihilation is still in theaters, and that was pretty great. But The Ritual is a reminder of just how wildly effective genre tropes can be when wielded by smart storytellers who know how to use and play off familiar structures. Like a really strong sports movie, or an effective martial arts actioner, we all have these rhythms internalized, and strong filmmakers know how to work with and against those rhythms to create something entirely their own.
I would’ve loved to have seen The Ritual on the big screen with an audience to shriek and laugh and cheer alongside, but the film still plays like gangbusters at the home. So if you and/or your friends are looking for a new chiller the next time you’re in the mood for some horror, The Ritual will not disappoint.