THE RITUAL: Four Hikers Retread Through Other Horror Movies
If you’re looking to be scared, then The Ritual may satisfy that itch. Just know that you’ll probably have seen it already, in one horror film or another.
If A24 are seeking out films with original ideas that abandon genre convention, then Andy Serkis’ production company, Imaginarium Productions, are doing the inverse. Following on from Breathe comes another competently-made genre exercise that keeps tidily within the confines of its own conventions: The Ritual.
This time it’s horror’s turn, as Rafe Spall and a pack of similarly laddish blokes – coming to terms with their newfound maturity – venture out to the Swedish countryside and, through a series of unfortunate mishaps and bad decision making, end up in the woods.
It’s Not Novel But It’s Based On One
You’ve seen it all before: the mass of trees that suffocate the surroundings and shroud the sunlight, the group bickering that escalates the tension, the demented dream sequences that really escalate the tension. The Ritual is hardly original, though nor does it try to be.
There’s a pantheon of horrors to compare The Ritual to. The Blair Witch Project, The Witch or Dog Soldiers, for instance. However, David Bruckner’s film leans most heavily on The Descent. Both horror flicks follow a same-gendered group through an expedition. Both use a lead protagonist who borders on traumatised following the death of someone he was close to. And both keep its potential terroriser concealed for much of the runtime.
Unfortunately, much like The Descent, The Ritual falls into the same trap: setting up a sympathetic protagonist with a haunted background is one thing, but integrating that haunted background into the narrative is another thing entirely.
If it’s any consolation, the setup is superb. We are introduced to the five men deliberating over their next holiday in a pub. Luke (Rafe Spall) seems intent on maintaining the glory days of late night partying, though the others have clearly moved on – it’s The World’s End, essentially.
What the film proceeds to do in the next five minutes completely blindsides you, transforming mundane chit-chat into full-bloodied horror. That The Ritual never quite regains the terrific tension and shock this opening produces isn’t a surprise, but it’s certainly a disappointment.
So, with the ‘traumatic backstory’ out of the way, it’s time to begin the story proper. Hutch (Robert James-Collier) does his knee in, and so the group are forced to take a detour through a forest. A good enough plan, but what these characters don’t know is that they’ve found themselves in a horror movie. If the mention of a dense, looming forest doesn’t raise alarm bells, then perhaps the mangled moose hanging from a tree with its entrails sprawled out across the ground will. Suitably rattled, the group spend the night in an abandoned cabin, which is when the horror turns from latent into nightmarish.
A Turn For The Worse
David Bruckner makes good use of his forest setting – or at least, as good a use as anyone can make considering how saturated the horror genre is with that exact setting – the thicket of green obscuring sunlight and distorting bearings, while the spikes sprouting from trees are both foreboding and foreshadowing.
Sound design, too, is accomplished – Bruckner (sensibly) prolongs the reveal of his monster, and so we are left with guttural growls and, later on, stomach-churning screams. When the monster finally nabs the screen-time, however, it’s hard not to feel that the fear has been sapped from the screen; fear of the unknown is, judging by The Ritual, much more effective.
If the monster isn’t quite tangible just yet, at least the on-screen chemistry is. The four characters seem lived-in, irritatingly bloke-ish but not to the point of excess or caricature. The bickering is well-realised and natural; the denial of the more supernatural events perhaps less so.
Thankfully, the persistent squabbling never quite leads to the emergence of a human antagonist, though James-Collier’s Hutch threatens to give in to that trope too for a short while. They’re just the guinea pigs, trapped in a wooded cage to be experimented on by their tormentor. It’s enjoyable, and often scary, but soon the plot becomes as directionless as their bearings.
The film quite clearly can’t sustain the simple threadbare narrative of four hikers wandering around a forest and attempting to outrun an unseen force; at the midway point, running out of ideas seems inevitable. And the film sort of does, in a way, but in another way it sidesteps that problem.
The Ritual veers into a territory that’s clearly disparate from its first two acts – a decision that’s disorientating, for better or for worse, and one that doesn’t so much as thrill the senses as senselessly give exposition. Even before the monster’s reveal, the threat is contained within how little we know of it; explain it away, and that threat subsides. Alien prequels, I’m looking at you!
Or, perhaps, the final act hinders the film by not managing to tie together Luke’s past trauma with his present danger. There’s a moment in a dusty hut shut off from sunlight, between him and another character coming to terms with their inevitable death, where the film almost reaches this melding of its plot strands, but by the end the strands are loosely dangling again. If you’re going to emulate The Descent, then at least sort out its problems.
Conclusion: The Ritual
It’s difficult to see The Ritual as anything more than a skin-surface take on guilt, blame, and friendship dynamics – it’s much more successful as a straight-laced forest-set horror, even if it does become bogged down in explaining itself, before eventually surrendering to an inevitably underwhelming reveal.
If you’re looking to be scared, then The Ritual may satisfy that itch. Just know that you’ll probably have seen it already, in one horror film or another – I’d take an A24 genre-redefiner over an Imaginarium Productions genre-succumber any day. Its hikers may try to outrun its creature, but The Ritual has already run out of ideas.
How important is originality to a horror movie? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!
The Ritual will be released on Netflix in the US on February 9th 2018. It is already out in the UK. For all international release dates, see here.
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