Director – David Bruckner
Cast – Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton, Paul Reid, Maria Erwolter, Hilary Reeves, Peter Liddell, Francesca Mula
Release Year – 2018
Reviewed by John of the Dead
The Ritual is the newest film to drop from Netflix, who purchased the film after it debuted at 2017’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Based on the novel of the same name, this effort comes from a familiar face in the genre – David Bruckner. Bruckner is known for The Signal, and a few anthologies: V/H/S, and Southbound. With him at the helm I had hopes that this would turn out a positive watch. The trailer had me at least engaged in the atmosphere, but I worried the story would be one of those to not hit hard enough. For the most part, that is true. Bruckner makes the most of the Scandinavian setting, and he also delivers some solid spooks. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t make the most of this unique take on the creature feature sub-genre.
Here we follow four friends from England who embark on a hiking trip deep within the Scandinavian hillside to reminisce over the sudden murder of their good friend. Unbeknownst to them, within these woods lies a mythical creature worshiped by a secret pagan society. As the crew is killed off one by one they are forced to confront their deepest fears and regrets in hopes of surviving.
This story comes adapted for the screen by Joe Barton (iBoy). Things kick off fairly well, giving us insight into the relationship between the guys and the friend they lost. More specifically, we learn of the dynamic between our lead Luke and the deceased, as well as the grief he has been forced to live with. It doesn’t take long for them to hit the road, and by the 19th minute we are hit with the first dose of horror. A few minutes after that things get really good as we learn the guys are in store for some spooky pagan shenanigans. The creature horror is teased for the majority of the film, as we know something is out there but it is always out of scene. Eventually things manifest and the revelation gave me something I wasn’t quite expecting. Alongside the creature element is a supernatural aspect that I personally was not a fan of. Flashbacks and hallucinations play a strong role here for me, but their ambiguous design left me uninterested. They do play a role in the end, but these scenes don’t really move the horror at all. The horror lies in the creature and the mystery behind it.
The direction from David Bruckner is pretty good and serves as the film’s saving grace. While the story was lackluster, the direction kept me interested. To start, the atmosphere is incredible. I loved the dense, gloomy woods where 95% of the film takes place in. The solitude and echoing sounds leave you with the impression that they are being watched, and by something very big. Nightfall provides the most tension and Bruckner makes the most of lighting here, or the lack thereof. There are scenes at the end of the film that make for some of the best horror I have seen in quite some time. These scenes delve into pagan horror, and damn are they effective. They aren’t representative of the entire experience, but these scenes are great. The lighting, sound (especially creepy), and execution make for a chill-inducing revelation. As for the creature, it was hit and miss for me. I enjoyed how unique it looked. It definitely has some spooky attributes, but at the same time it is also majestic and God-like. Unfortunately, majestic and God-like isn’t scary – at least in the manner it was executed here. This creature is almost entirely shown via CGI, but at least the gore from the killings is via practical effects. We aren’t shown many deaths on screen. Instead, we are shown the aftermath, which was at least brutal and shown in full-frontal fashion. I wish I could say the horror hit harder here. While The Ritual is spooky at times it ultimately doesn’t do enough with the elements it has. Neither the creature horror nor pagan horror are executed to potential. There are moments of brilliance, but the most important elements of the film are lacking.
Overall, The Ritual is an OK experience if you need something to watch and want to take a chance on something you may like. Fans of creature features should scale back a bit on their expectations, and so should those into pagan horror. It doesn’t do enough for either sub-genre.