Studio: After Dark Films
Director: Mickey Keating
Writer: Mickey Keating
Producer: Chelsea Stardust Peters, Eric B. Fleischman
Stars: Chelsea Stardust, Lisa Marie Summerscales, Dean Cates, Brian Lally, Derek Phillips, Eric Martig, Stephen F. Brophy, Katherine Shelton, John Hugo, Larry Fessenden
When a mysterious man ends up murdered in a motel room, a husband and wife become the targets of a cult involved in human sacrifice.
Thrillers have their work cut out for them if the audience is too far ahead of the story. Suspense will always be in short supply when it is the character onscreen experiencing a twist instead of the viewer, who already knows about these plot turns going in.
Without reading a story summary beforehand, the title of the movie and the cover art featuring a skull and candles are enough of an indication that “Ritual” features a cult dealing in human sacrifice. By using nearly half of the runtime to give this same information to the two protagonists, the script cannot help but underwhelm while spending forty minutes simply booting its premise off the ground.
Tom is frantically summoned to a seedy South Texas motel room by his estranged wife Lovely, who has gotten herself into quite a jam by murdering the room’s occupant. Tom learns that the dead man belonged to a mysterious cult and Lovely was on tap to be their next ritual murder. Now the other cultists are after the couple to finish what the dead man started.
This bare bones game of hide-and-seek is everything going on in the story department. To redeem itself as a horror movie worth watching, all the movie has left in its empty bag of tricks is to perhaps create creepy atmosphere or to establish a setpiece worth mentioning. While “Ritual” gives it a go, it accomplishes neither of these things.
A platter spinning 50’s soundtrack and beach blanket bingo wardrobe attempt injecting style, but “Ritual” never pulls together a cohesive fantasy with enough chills to deliver a slick satanic sensibility. The rambling approach to devil-worshipping themes on display here has nothing on the post-“Rosemary’s Baby” heyday of cinema where grainy Kodak stock gave an uncomfortably sinister tinge to black robes and shaved heads.
The cultists of “Ritual” are not the kindly next-door neighbors in tweed suits and everyday passersby with evil eyes that horror films of the seventies scared audiences into fearing. These are nondescript truck stop hillbillies putting knives to female throats for unexplained reasons. When confronted, these would-be demon worshippers laugh maniacally without sense and without any discernible motivation. “Ritual” does not offer a backstory or a reason to be frightened, unless wearing rubber Silver Shamrock skeleton masks counts as fearsome.
A random smattering of misplaced elements suggests that “Ritual” is on the wrong track with what makes horror movies fun and terrifying. Tom finds a creepy clown doll in the back seat of a car. White noise static plays incessantly on a motel room television set. There is a false notion on display that such things on their own should be enough to manifest unease, but absent of context, they play as desperate fumblings to create mood where there is none. “Ritual” should have used a grindhouse approach instead of hoping that the audience would infer horror in ideas alone without requiring that the execution back it up.
“Ritual” lacks a confidence in selling its false reality. The motel room drama reads like a one act stage play. Handheld camera two-shots let the interaction between the husband and wife play naturally, with few cuts while they are in conversation, yet without a feeling of authenticity. The dialogue between the actors is forced and their performances are restrained more than they should be. When Lovely is pursued late in the film, she runs with as much panic in her stride as an old man lazily going to the toilet in the middle of the night. Imprisoned in the back of a car, she pounds on the trunk lid with the forcefulness of a noodle. Feeling any kind of terror over what is happening is impossible when the movie asks for more of a response from its audience than it does from its actors.
“Ritual” needed a richer back half and a faster track to getting there. A prolonged buildup to the discovery already revealed by the film’s own synopsis negates any tension and nothing along the way justifies the extended journey.
Thin plotting and an unconvincing production have “Ritual” far in the hole. Writer/director Mickey Keating’s film doubles the disappointment with poor choices for scene placement. Tom spends the first four and a half minutes after the opening credits just driving to the motel while listening to the radio. Lovely injures herself while fleeing and spends two and a half minutes pulling an object out of her foot. “Ritual” is lost about what to emphasize and when. The result is a pace that falls flat and a weak hook with little potential to captivate.
NOTE: There is a post-credits scene.
Review Score: 40