Movie Review: ‘The Ritual’
Starring: Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, and Sam Troughton
Plot: A group of friends take a hiking trip planned by a member that recently died and cross paths with a great evil.
Up until now, David Bruckner has been cutting his teeth on horror anthologies. He worked on the first V/H/S, a mixed bag series, and his “Amateur Night” section is the only, to my knowledge, segment to be good enough to get its own spinoff. He also worked on Southbound, which is the only recent anthology to come closest to remaining good from start to finish. With The Ritual, he is finally doing a full feature length film.
It stars Rafe Spall, of the “Black Mirror” Christmas special, and a few others guys I don’t recognize (sorry, fellas) as a group of friends who go on a hiking trip in Sweden. They are doing so to honor a fallen friend who was brutally murdered shortly after they discussed a big group trip. The hiking trip was the fallen friend’s idea, and the rest of them were pretty wishy-washy about it. On their way back, one of their number trips in a hole and hurts his ankle, so they decide to take a shortcut through the woods off the trail route, only to cross paths with an ancient evil. And now we have a movie.
Bruckner takes a premise begging to be shot from the perspective of one of the character’s camera phones and avoids it at all costs. Thank god. The found footage technique has really run its course. The gimmick was pretty much over after Blair Witch Project came and went, and yet, it has been beat into the ground. Being a fly on the wall only gives the illusion that something is being exposed, but it wrings out so much of the nuance that the scares rely on sneaking up on the camera instead creating an atmosphere where anything can happen.
Bruckner does just that. It is an ever compounding series of events that amp up the creepiness at each turn. A disgusting animal carcass not recognized as the sacrifice that it is leads gives way to a derelict cabin with a strange, roughly-made idol for a pagan god that blends in nicely with the rest of the trees. It stalks them pretty early, but it is always obscured. We all know that’s how its done because most monsters look like garbage. The big dramatic reveal is rarely dramatic, but not this one. This monster is brilliantly designed and well-crafted. So, not only does it make a dramatic reveal but it sticks around for a few more scares.
Part of what makes the monster work previous to its reveal is the character’s are already suspicious of what they are seeing. Their night spent in the cabin (to get them out of the rain) ended with all four of them having nightmares. The only one we are privy to is Spall’s character’s dream. He is still processing guilt related to his friend’s murder, and that is then interlaced pretty well with the physical mayhem that is happening in the forest. However, the mileage may vary.
I say that because the characters start off thinly defined. We learn factoids about them. Jobs. Names. Whether they have wives or not. But we don’t know them. I’m of two minds if this is actually a bad thing or not. On one hand, no movie has ever suffered for having fully fleshed out characters. That should always be the goal. It is usually necessary to giving them an arc. However, when it comes to horror, just seeing frightening things happen to frightened people is enough to get your empathy going. It’s the difference between caring that anyone dies (including these guys) and being interested in a specific person’s survival. So, like I said, mileage may vary.
As far as atmosphere is concerned, Bruckner is well-equipped. Give him characters worthy of being cared for (I seriously don’t even recognize the character names looking at the cast list) and he’ll have all his bases loaded.