Well lookee here. Netflix dumped not one but two horrifying flicks on us humble audiences this month. We did “Cloverfield Paradox” last week, so why not join some of our distinguished colleagues and try to review “The Ritual” this week? It’s shocking that we’re actually watching another new release instead of something old but not old enough to be cool yet. It’s almost like we’re competent or something.
Well, with that descriptive intro, here’s the review.
Based on a novel that I’ve never read, “The Ritual” starts like a midlife dramedy, with a group of overgrown lads in a pub, planning their next vacation and struggling with the gap between bachelorhood and married life that widens as one slows down. Then one of them gets himself killed in a botched liquor store holdup (he was an innocent bystander, not a holder-upper). A few months later, his surviving friends are taking a hiking trip in Sweden where they hold an impromptu memorial. Things start to get weird on their way back, where they take a shortcut through a forest that throws off their sense of time and space, not to mention the fact that something in there seems to be following them. Surprisingly enough, after a stay in an abandoned house where each man is tortured by nightmares, things don’t get better…
For the most part, “The Ritual” is a solid blend of psychological and traditional horror. The director is horror vet David Bruckner, who’s into the co-directing thing (he was featured in “V/H/S,” which I saw and kind of remember, as well as 2007 “The Signal,” which I forgot I saw but never forgot I really liked). Either way, it’s unsurprising that “The Ritual” looks and feels good. It’s sort of the horror version of the John Ford rule: If you point a camera in some well lit rainy woods, and you don’t fall over drunk while holding the camera, you’re bound to make some atmospheric pictures (the cinematography was done by Andrew Shulkind, who has worked with Bruckner before, and the editing was Mark Towns, who hasn’t). Bruckner does more than that, also using the forest to build tension, add aggression and drive the plot in subtle and not so subtle ways.
I will also say this. For the most part, Bruckner knows when to keep the monster out of sight, which is a smart tactic, but it’s one that can lead to disappointment when the creature finally makes an appearance. However, when he does decide to show the creature…well, let’s say he does OK. Even those who have been less than satisfied with the movie seem satisfied with its creature.
The humans aren’t so bad themselves. A small, tight cast (it’s basically a four man play) ensures that we get to know our characters pretty well in an organic way. They feel real; each actor plays his part like someone you’d meet at the bar, whether they’re bragging drunkenly in the middle of the room or checking their watch in a dark corner. Admittedly, their individual psychologies are not examined in depth, but the connections between their dreams, desires and individual guilty consciences are all brought up. The movie might not be intellectual, but it is clever. Although Lord but those boys do swear a lot.
One complaint is that the film doesn’t do anything new. But is “The Ritual” genuinely unoriginal? Well, yes. Completely. It’s part “Blair Witch Project,” part Algernon Blackwood (please tell me you’ve read “The Willows”), part every crappy camping trip you ever shivered your way through as a kid. However, originality, like depth, is a tall order. A more pressing issue is the ending, which is far too fast. I’m not saying it lack resolution. It just sort of…stops. After so much pleasant–from a horror perspective–imagery, it can be quite disappointing to have such an unimaginative conclusion. Still, genre fans should be willing to forgive less than a minute of disappointment for 90 minutes of quality atmosphere. “The Ritual” doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is: for the four men on screen, a really poorly planned vacation.