I like hill-walking and all, but it would take something absurdly huge like, say, me failing to save my friend from dying in a robbery gone wrong to even think about hiking up a great big mountain in another country. Which means I have at least something in common with the characters in David Bruckner’s latest addition to the modern horror canon, The Ritual. And even if I did somehow end up on that great big foreign mountain, I wouldn’t go into the bloody big black bleak forest if you promised to bring aforementioned dead friend back to life. And that’s where we differ.
After the murder of their friend Robert, four friends decide to take a trip to Sweden for some ill-advised rambling in the country in order to celebrate his memory. Luke, played by Rafe Spall, feels responsible for Robert’s death as he hid while one of the robbers caved his friend’s head in – and he’s not the only one who thinks he should have done more to prevent his friend’s violent end. When one of the party twists his knee, the group decide to take a shortcut through the forest to return to modernity and discover something unthinkable buried deep in the woods.
What follows is a surprisingly effective horror, with strong performances and a massive amount of dread that builds gloriously over the course of it’s tight 90-minute runtime. The four friends: the pragmatic Hutch (Rob James-Collier), the wry Phil (Arsher Ali), and the rich, successful, and slightly pathetic Dom (a standout Sam Troughton) give the film a distinctly British sense of humour that plays well to the more obvious American horror influences. Despite the Swedish setting, The Ritual’s forest owes a lot to the design of the Blair Witch films, while the middle-class danger and possible malevolent locals hark all the way back to Deliverance. That’s far from criticism, though, as the film finds enough ways to build its own palpable atmosphere while homaging some classics.
A smart move from the advertising was only including footage from the first act in the trailers, so that once the night in the broken-down old wooden hut comes to an end to close out the first act, the audience is left guessing what will happen next. What does happen fittingly defies easy explanation for the group as they wake up after a night of freaky “dreams” in different states of unrest. The dread and paranoia that follows the group could be caused by different factors -some is convinced that they are being followed by something inhuman while others are sure that it’s people messing with them, but in reality the growing tension between these four friends has everything to do with the guilt and cowardice wrapped up in their past as much as the swelling danger threatened by the forest
It helps that the performances are uniformly excellent. Rafe Spall (looking at times both exactly like his dad and nothing at all like him) in particular is perfect as Luke, on the verge of breaking down and cracking up before anything freaky happens at all. What’s equally important is Luke’s status within the group – The Ritual portrays in a realistic sense of a group of friends that are drifting apart, forming stronger bonds in relationships and fatherhood, that Luke isn’t interested in (or can’t find his way to). These all-too-relatable feelings of being left behind become incredibly poignant in a survival horror context. I know that sounds a little ridiculous, but it totally does, and it’s a film that calls on you to really give it’s elegantly portrayed themes of guilt, connection, and selfishness more thought than it’s gory third act might indicate.
The Ritual is by no means an original film, especially for the horror genre, but it’s a well-paced, tense, and often hilarious B-movie with a surprising amount of depth buried under the surface.
By Kevin Boyle
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