THE RITUAL Review
Director: David Bruckner
Most horror films are bad. I recognize that it’s a strange thing for someone who considers themselves a fan to say as much, but it’s the unfortunate truth. Lower production values, shoddy stories, overreliance on cheap gross-out and shock effects . . . you know all the requisite complaints. But I would say that a lack of consistency is somewhat inherent, perhaps even necessary, for the integrity of the genre. After all, unpredictability is at the very heart of horror’s intentions to scare you, and not knowing exactly what you’re going to get is part of the unique charm; watching a bad horror film is arguably just as enjoyable as watching a good one for the promise of tearing it apart with your friends afterwards. As such, it’s a shame when films like THE RITUAL focus so hard on being competent and functional that they forget how to be enjoyable.
A group of old college friends, Luke (Rafe Spall), Rob (Paul Reid), Phil (Arsher Ali), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), and Dom (Sam Troughton) get together to plan a hiking trip in Sweden. Luke and Rob go off to get supplies for a nightcap at a liquor store, only for Rob to be killed by junkies looking for some cash after Luke fails to stand up to them. We move six months forward in the future, when the rest of the lads have embarked upon the trip in honor of their friend. As predicted, they soon go off the beaten path, suffering progressively more disturbing nightmares and visions after taking shelter in a dilapidated cabin in the woods. As they slowly realize their every move is being watched by a menacing creature known as a jötunn, they must struggle to stay alive as the latent tensions over Luke’s complicity with Rob’s death threaten to tear them apart.
Occasionally in a literal sense
I suppose THE RITUAL is an interesting anomaly for just how aggressively it latches itself onto the standard storytelling formula, a rare quality for a horror film to possess. Almost boilerplate in its conceit, the film rotely goes through the requisite narrative elements. We can buy that Luke suffers from extreme guilt over Rob’s death, but we can also guess that his fight for survival in the forest as a metaphor for conquering his fears within 10 minutes of pressing play. The gradual increase in the stakes of what the group’s up against keeps things from ever stalling to a halt (here’s looking at you, every found footage film ever), but is delivered with such razor-sharp precision that it can’t shake the impression it was workshopped to death in a college screenwriting class. As far as a creature feature goes, THE RITUAL gains some points for focusing on a monster from Norse mythology many have likely never even heard of, but makes use of such familiar imagery and plot points in terms of a group of friends that get lost in the woods that it still feels procedurally generated. As such, it’s stuck in a frustrating twilight zone where it’s good, I guess, but never interesting.
That being said, if nothing else, THE RITUAL is at least aesthetically pleasant. So many lower-budget horror films suffer from a notably amateur lack of lighting and set-dressing that it’s refreshing to see one that faithfully captures the ominous beauty of an isolated stretch of forest and the hints of civilization scattered throughout. The segment in the cabin that kicks off the supernatural festivities is a creepy atmospheric highlight, but far more memorable is how the film paints the forest as beautiful as it is threatening. What’s more, the acting is well above the standard set by THE RITUAL’s peers! All of the leads are charismatic and natural, thankfully given dialogue that accurately capture the naturalistic banter and ribbing of a flock of old college friends, and the film’s infinitely more watchable because of it.
Members of my family encountering my Facebook profile
Unfortunately, the aforementioned predictability also prevents THE RITUAL from ever approaching something scary. There are the expected screeches of sound design and hurried movements to jerk you out of your stupor, but they’re all so unapologetically advertised that even the amateur horror perusor won’t find them particularly shocking. But credit must be given where credit’s due, and the care put into the creature effects and gore is impressive, with the reveal of the jötunn and the state of his victims being appropriately stomach-churning. While far too niche to ever become a genre regular, bastard offspring of Loki are at least more engaging than yet another zombie or haunted hillbilly infestation.
You could do far, far worse than THE RITUAL, and there’s enough meritable elements present that it’s unlikely to leave anyone entirely cold. But really folks, you’re virtually guaranteed to turn a profit on a horror film, why not try shaking things up a little bit more? A strange villain alone does not a good horror movie make, and while the film is more tonally mature than a good majority of the dreck out there, every step forward feels like a step we’ve taken countless times before. You’re likely to see it pop on your Netflix sometime soon and I won’t scold you for giving it a click, but you’re better off with something like THE HALLOW instead.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend