Literally, everyone I knew who had seen Netflix’s The Ritual urged me to watch it. Not one person had anything bad to say about it – I was planning on watching it anyway just from catching the trailer, which intrigued me, but mostly because while watching that same trailer, I felt I was seeing a few already familiar movies. I finally got around to viewing it, and it turned out mostly as I expected: good, but far from great, for a number of reasons.
In the movie, four friends from Britain go on a hiking trip in a remote part of Sweden, following the death of the fifth member of their group the previous year. When one of them injures an ankle, they vote to end the trip quickly by taking a short cut, through a heavily forested area. When they discover a seemingly abandoned cabin in the woods and hunker down for the night, the next day begins a descent into terror as they are stalked by an unknown being. Does this seem familiar? It probably does, but maybe not completely evocative of one single movie. As I watched, I was reminded of many movies that feature a group of people stalked by a terrifying, mysterious threat. Deliverance may not be a supernatural movie, but could be interpreted as horror all the same; Predator is a very close analogue, with the plot of a group of people being picked off one at a time by something in the forest, then there’s the greatest lost-in-the-woods movie of all time, The Blair Witch Project. If you felt like it, you could also throw in The Descent too, but in the second half, the movie plays a lot more like Baskin than these others, once the true nature of the horror is revealed.
The movie is adapted from the book of the same name by Adam Nevill, which I haven’t read, so this isn’t a movie written by committee, it just isn’t the most original idea committed to film, and in the horror genre, recycled plots are more common than perhaps any other genre. The Ritual even throws in the Cabin In The Woods trope too, leaving nothing to waste. If it sounds like I’m mocking the movie, I’m not, and I’ll dial back any perceptions of that when I say that while The Ritual is deeply flawed, especially in the second half, and especially especially in the climax, it’s a solid little character-driven movie, with a somewhat original reveal. There was a lot I liked, and not much I disliked.
The movie’s best moments mostly arrive in the first half, from the pivotal early scene that takes place during a liquor store robbery that precipitates the trip to Sweden and some of the undercurrent of unspoken anger within the group, to the cabin in the woods scene, which I feel is the best part of the movie. Other than Rafe Spall’s Luke and Sam Troughton’s Dom, the other characters Phil and Hutch (Arsher Ali and Robert James-Collier) are less defined, which, given the plot, makes sense. I didn’t care too much for Dom, I have to say. He’s not really presented as anything other than The Annoying Guy, and there weren’t many moments given to him where any kind of sympathy was generated by the script on his behalf, even if Dom was probably representative of most guys in that situation. Even as well defined as Luke was, and played well by Spall, there was something about him that didn’t completely feel authentic – or if not that, a lack of true depth that left me not completely convinced by his arc.
The cabin in the woods scene was, like I said, my favourite one. It’s the bridging scene that turns the movie in a different direction, like in Deliverance where Ned Beatty and Ronnie Cox meet the rednecks, and it’s very well done. This is the scene that most reminded me of Baskin – not so much for the actual content, but for the atmosphere of weirdness that’s prevalent throughout it. While Baskin gets super weird, The Ritual mostly just scratches the surface, but effectively I thought.
From that point until the Act 2 climax, the plot becomes mostly something you’ve seen before, and doesn’t add anything particularly interesting to the “we’re being hunted” storyline. There are some visually interesting diversions that relate to the earlier liquor store robbery (one in particular that appears to reveal a distinctly supernatural slant to the story), but otherwise the plot in this section is mostly boilerplate.
Likewise, I felt another dip in story quality when Luke and Dom encounter another group who live in the forest. This happens in the run in to the end of Act 2, and it felt mostly seen-it-all-before. I understand that it facilitates the ending, but it was just too familiar for me to get fully invested in either it, or the newly introduced characters. I feel that there could have been much more interesting story decisions made at this important part of the story.
The most disappointing aspect for me was Act 3. Having finally revealed what is actually stalking the men throughout Act 2, the effect is initially unique and fittingly creepy, and the nature of the entity is something I enjoyed too. The big problem here is that because the bulk of the visual effects budget was spent on this one aspect of the movie, once you see it for the first time, then you see it all the time, negating the mystery of the unknown that was built up well enough in the prior hour. I was reminded of Alien here – in that movie, the awe of the creature is largely dispelled at the end when you see it’s just a guy in a suit, when all you’ve seen before are brief, but effective, shots of various body parts. In The Ritual, it almost felt that by showing the entire entity pretty much all the way through Act 3, the producers were trying to get their money’s worth, and it lessened the impact of the ending. Up until the climax I was prepared to give the movie a solid 4 out of 5, but ultimately it didn’t deserve it. In addition to this, the ending of Luke’s arc annoyed the hell out of me, but to explain would inevitably result in me giving out an important spoiler, so I won’t do it here.
The director, David Bruckner, has done some solid work before (V/H/S and Southbound), and this is by far his most accomplished movie to date. His style is highly reminiscent of the team of Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (Resolution, Spring, and the soon-to-be-released The Endless), and I hope he continues in this genre for a while.
© Andrew Hope, 2018