What happens when you take The Blair Witch but remove the found footage and self-awareness? You end up with The Ritual, a creepy horror flick set in the dark forests of Sweden. You still get the hair-raising and thought-provoking elements to keep you interested, but you’re not exactly getting an experience that will make you hunger for more. After making its big premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, Netflix recently released the film directed by David Bruckner (Southbound), and written by Joe Barton (iBoy) and Adam Nevill, who also wrote the novel the movie is based on.
The Ritual is the story of four friends who go on a hiking trip in Sweden to mourn the death of a friend who died in a robbery. This last tidbit is VERY important to remember because the main character Luke (played by Rafe Spall) witnessed the shooting take place and carries a sense of survivor’s guilt. This guilt affects his relationship with his friends and the overall direction of the mystery. The rapport between the core group works well due to how natural they are together, ably conveying that they’d been friends for years through smaller moments. Since The Ritual only has the main setting of the forest, we’re left to rely on their chemistry to help carry the story until the main mystery is revealed. And the film did well in that regard. While we did learn a bit about Luke and Dom (and even their dead friend Robert), it was a shame that some of the others didn’t get the same attention.
The horror elements are where The Ritual truly shines. With exception to the first five minutes of the film where the friends having fun at the bar, the film sticks to a consistent creepy tone. The eerie background music, the off-kilter camera angles, and the ritualistic props provides an uneasy and chilling tone. While watching, it became clear that there wouldn’t be a break from that dread in the pit in your stomach; we are ripped right from the shooting to the mountains of Sweden. There was never a time to relax. The editing and music made it clear something unnatural was happening in those woods and this experience wasn’t going to be a fun one.
However, The Ritual is shot so beautifully it helps mitigate that uneasiness. Don’t get me wrong, I will NEVER go camping, especially in the mountains of Sweden, but we see a lot of great nature shots. The Ritual utilizes their backdrop for all its worth; they have an entire forest to work with and they make it count. The arching trees and abundance of foliage helps the scenes felt claustrophobic and propels the mystery of the creature inside. One of my favorite scenes had to be when the group discovered the drinking puddles by the dried ravine. The rocks had such rich color and it was a treat to see.
Another strong element was the main character’s general psychological discontent. He is so wracked with guilt over Robert’s death that something coincidentally supernatural begins happening in the forest. We as the audience, are left to wonder if it’s actually happening or simply manifestations of his mind. This was astutely conveyed in the interludes where we were pulled from the forest to experience Luke’s torment; each time became more sinister with the manifestations fighting back. The first time we witness the scene had to be the creepiest…and for good reason. (Helpful note: Keep an eye on those green eyes!)
The plot is where The Ritual falters. The movie’s framework was the biggest set up for failure. Four friends on a hiking trip mourning the death of a friend- that’s the baseline. However, once they head into the woods and stumble upon a cabin (of course, there would be a cabin in the woods!) it provided few answers. We get some explanations about the enemy and why Luke was the most affected; we needed to learn something once the reason for everything was shown. On the other hand, it only provided a lot more questions that were never answered.
Why all the markings in the forest? How does it explain the experience in the cabin? How did the people in the forest get there? This could simply be a case of the book-to-movie adaptation curse. Having not read the book, it makes me wonder if the backstory was removed. Horror elements, such as living corpses, were added, but the plot didn’t allude to why they were included or how it was possible. Something seemed to be missing as the end credits rolled, and it felt a tad unfinished.
The Ritual is a creepy horror film that creates an uneasy tone and genuine horror atmosphere. Right from the first action sequence, we’re made to prepare for the evil to come, and kept in a continuous hair-raising mood. If you’re expecting to have fun while watching The Ritual, this might not be the case. It wants to be a serious horror film with a deep undercurrent of tension between the friends and fear of the unknown. There are no horror gags, light-hearted scenes or quippy characters: for the most part, they’re serious and one-note. You’ll experience their journey in the forest and want them to survive, but you won’t be as invested or connected as you should be. By the end, similarly to one of the characters, you’ll simply walk away without looking back.