Director: David Bruckner
Starring: Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton
Writer: Joe Barton
Review by Michael Walls-Kelly
The Ritual is a combination of a few horror movie concepts. There’s the atmospheric wilderness survival film, the horrors of grief and guilt, and the existential terror of the supernatural. The Ritual manages to mix these elements together without becoming overcrowded. On top of that, it actually managed to be good.
The movie opens with a group of friends on a night out, discussing plans for a trip. After walking in on a liquor store robbery in progress, one of them is killed. Six months later, the remaining friends decide to take a hiking trip in Sweden in honour of their friend. Unfortunately, they have to deal with strained relationships, guilt, injuries and some creepy-ass Blair Witch style goings on.
The film is in the same vein as The Descent or The Blair Witch Project, which means there’s a lot of walking through the wilderness. You need a great cast for that, and luckily this cast is full of top-notch British actors. Rafe Spall has slowly become one of my favourite actors to see pop up in a film. He plays Luke, wracked with guilt for hiding during the robbery while his friend was killed. Robert James-Collier (great as the shady Thomas in Downton Abbey) is Hutch, a natural leader, and peacemaker within the group. Arsher Ali is Phil, seemingly the most “normal” of the guys, and the least-developed. Rounding out the group is Sam Troughton (grandson of character actor and Doctor Who lead, Patrick Troughton) as Dom, the whiniest member of the group.
The Ritual does a good job of developing the characters enough for us to actually care about them when the shit goes down. I wish we got to know Phil a little more. They even made the annoying guy, Dom, sympathetic, and horror movies have a long tradition of extremely unsympathetic annoying guys. The movie also avoids dragging on and becoming a series of miserable folks trudging through the forest. Every scene has some tension or characterization and director David Bruckner (Southbound, V/H/S’s “Amateur Night”) breaks up the visuals with interesting setpieces before the forest setting can become repetitive.
The highlight of the film — at least until the completely bonkers finale — is a night they spend in a cabin. It’s a spooky Evil Dead-esque wood cabin that induces nightmares and has a headless wicker shrine in the attic. So, you know, not the greatest vacation spot. From there, things start to spiral out of control. Animal carcasses are displayed high up in trees, old Nordic runes are carved into trees, and there’s something always lurking in the woods nearby.
This next part will get slightly SPOILER-Y, so if you want to go in completely blind — which you probably should — just skip to the verdict.
When we get to the third act, we discover that our intrepid hikers have been chased, harassed, and attacked by a pagan cult and the monstrous half-god offspring of Loki that they worship. A lot of movies would keep the creature hidden or save it for a quick jump scare at the end. The monster is all over the finale of the film. The creature is designed by Keith Thompson (frequent concept artist for Guillermo del Toro) and it’s one of the best monster designs I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to describe. It takes a few scenes to even comprehend it with your eyes. It’s a totemic moose creature with beady yellow hooded eyes where its nose should be and human-like arms coming out of its face like tusks.
What I’m saying is, it’s fucking fantastic.
(Insha: Confirmed. It really fucking is.)
Luke ends up coming to terms with hiding while his friend died, which was an interesting way for the film to go. Throughout he is haunted by images of his friend dying in the liquor store — highlighted by striking images of fluorescent lights and store shelves showing up in the woods. The creature basically forces him to recreate the situation. If he stays bowed down, averting his eyes, he may survive. He chooses to fight instead, something he couldn’t do for his friend. But ultimately, in both situations, he did what he had to do to survive. There’s a lot to chew on when the film actually ends. Definitely more than you’d expect from the interesting but been-there-done-that setup.
Verdict: Watch this movie! If you’re a horror fan, you really can’t go wrong with The Ritual. It doesn’t reinvent the genre or anything, but what it does it does very well. The night in the cabin has stuck with me in the days since I’ve watched it and the finale may end up being an all-timer. It’s the perfect film for people scrolling through Netflix on a dark night. The Ritual is something you may not specifically seek out. It’s a hell of a nice surprise if you end up watching it.