The Ritual, premiering on Netflix on February 9th, is The Blair Witch Project meets Wild… but not as cool as that sounds.
One of the biggest trappings of horror filmmaking is that it is difficult to escape the tropes of the genre. Every jump scare and every plot has often been done before, and it is sometimes difficult to stand out from the pack. The fact that it is hard to surprise the audience is what has worked to the advantage of director David Bruckner’s career. To date, he had only made segments of anthology horror films like Southbound and V/H/S, making the best segment of the latter. With his first feature-length effort of The Ritual, it feels far more like he has combined three different horror films in only one story, stretching himself beyond his limits and resulting in a very workable scary movie.
First, there is the Bigfoot movie elements, with the horrifying beast in the woods a constant threat. Then there are the supernatural trappings, with the magical elements working against the more grounded reality of the remainder of the film. This clash makes The Ritual seem choppy, despite the horror movie aspects still working. The best of all, however, is the psychological thriller underneath the main horror, with the story of the film following a group of British friends gathering for a hike in the Swedish wilderness following the murder of the other member of their college group. Luke (Rafe Spall) witnesses this attack in a brutal sequence, leaving him guilt-ridden and traumatized for the remainder of the film. Spall’s performance is easily the highlight of the film, an underrated yet brilliant actor doing the best with a middling script.
The clash between realism and fantasy is jarring throughout the movie, and while it makes for good horror it ruins the internal logic of the film. Based on a book of the same name by Adam Nevill, I have a strong feeling that the novel-form of The Ritual gets into the rules of the universe far better than the movie even attempts. While it doesn’t ruin the thrills of the movie itself, the problems with the story are far less ignorable when the tension aren’t raised.
Thankfully the film is actually scary. The horrifically realistic opening attack through to the monster-in-the-wood thrills all terrify, and that makes the film all the more entertaining. Spall’s performance is what keeps the movie kinetic throughout, giving the audience something to care about. The supporting actors, including Sam Troughton and Downton Abbey’s Robert James-Collier, are not up to the levels of Spall, but still, kick the fear into high-gear when necessary.
The Ritual is a bit of a hodgepodge of a film, with the terror of the movie not matching the poorer story elements. But with a great lead performance and some wonderfully creative direction, the film manages to overstep the most boring parts of the story and eschew the typical expectations of horror films.