Director: David Bruckner
Writer: Joe Barton
Producer: Jonathan Cavendish, Richard Holmes
Stars: Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton, Paul Reid, Maria Erwolter, Kerri McLean
Four friends encounter an ancient evil while hiking in remote Swedish woods.
Luke and his old college chums already had doubts about making their regular reunion trip a hiking holiday in Sweden. Fitness concerns take a backseat however, when one of their own dies tragically and the long trek becomes a memorial for their mate.
Unfortunate circumstances are far from finished with the four friends. When blisters and a busted knee force the quartet on an off-road shortcut through uncharted woods, they quickly find themselves facing unfathomable frights. Strange runes carved into trees, gutted animal carcasses impaled on branches, and a bizarre effigy in an abandoned cabin put the men on edge. Violently vivid nightmares, strange cries in the distance, and an unseen presence stalking from the shadows push them over it.
Considering how overdone ‘lost in a forest’ horror is, this setup probably sounds worthy of an eye roll. But old dogs don’t need to do new tricks to earn attention. While “The Ritual” doesn’t reinvent the woodland spookshow wheel, its rims shine with chrome-plated creeps, its tires inflate with tightly clenched tension, and carefully measured performances send slow-burn suspense down a nerve-wracking straightaway of wicked witchiness. In less metaphoric terms, “The Ritual” impresses as a well-conceived standout in an often-underwhelming subgenre.
“The Ritual” starts setting itself apart from peers through its fantastically chilling location. This isn’t an indistinguishable area of rural Burkittsville, the overly familiar trees of Vancouver, or a convenient patch of woods a few miles from a residential neighborhood. “The Ritual” plants roots in the thick of a Romanian forest whose tree branches gnarl in distinctively spooky shapes, and whose unique vistas reset with each scene. These weird woods don’t look like every other filmed forest of repetitive foliage and Xeroxed vertical trunk lines. They create an inanimate character that unsettles atmosphere before any sinister actions take place.
The forest’s creep factor earns additional amplification from the foreign feel of Scandinavia via Eastern Europe. Luke’s pals aren’t so far from home as to cross into some hopelessly remote location. Yet they are cut off from their comfort zones enough for their situation to seem unsafe in intangible ways. This stranger in a strange land vibe adds an unusualness that other fictional forests can’t capture with only local effort.
The men trapped within these haunting trees also aren’t a typical troupe of forgettable college kid fodder. These middle-aged men may not be especially scholarly, but they aren’t disposable dopes either. Everyone is different, and can be vaguely described as ‘the self-assured one,’ ‘the nebbish bumbler,’ ‘the repentant coward,’ etc. Again with the “buts,” they aren’t exaggerated stereotypes like the jock, the nerd, the virgin, the princess, and so on. Making the men of a more mature age gives their characters credibility that capable actors embody with personalized sincerity.
Based on the 2011 novel by British author Adam Nevill, “The Ritual” takes these basic blocks and builds macabre mood from fractured friendships, paranoid suspicions, pagan occultism, and classic creature-in-the-darkness scares. Some may accuse director David Bruckner’s potpourri of not having an overtly original odor. Anyone who wants to argue against how assured direction channels all of the above into cinematically effective eeriness has less of a firm leg to stand on.
Memorable moments, in particular an assembly of not-quite-dead corpses during the conclusion, have the ability to imprint nightmarish imagery not quickly to be forgotten. Speaking of the climax, “The Ritual’s” last act trips its tempo once mysteries no longer need solving and the simplistic outcome lies in plain sight. Not so much so that intrigue loses its luster though. Even disappointing destinations can have bountiful journeys, and the harrowing one in “The Ritual” rarely feels false. Authenticity in acting, staging, and scope remains realistic to the point that when plausibility bends for a Lovecraftian turn, the fantasy still seems grounded.
I’d call “The Ritual” a “good old-fashioned horror movie” if that didn’t make it sound so boringly dated. More intense than “The Hallow” (review here), more dynamic than “The Blair Witch Project” (review here), and better than most other forest-set films that immediately spring to mind, “The Ritual” simply sizzles as a traditionally entertaining terror tale told with sharp visual flair.
Review Score: 85