By: Hawk Ripjaw (A Toast) –
College friends Luke (Rafe Spall), Phil (Arsher Ali), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), Dom (Sam Troughton), and Robert (Paul Reid) are meeting for drinks. In discussing where else they can spend time together, Robert suggests backpacking in Sweden. After agreeing, the group disperses and Luke and Robert enter a liquor store, where there is a robbery in progress. Luke ducks behind a shelf, but Robert is spotted. Luke is too frightened to help his friend, and the junkies beat Robert to death. Six months later, the remaining four are making the trip in memory of their friend. Luke is racked with guilt over the tragedy. It’s made clear early on that he isn’t the only one who thinks he could have helped Robert.
On the return hike to the lodge, Dom twists his knee. In the interest of hearing as little of Dom’s annoying whining as possible, Hutch suggests cutting straight through the massive forest in front of them instead of going around. There’s probably not a single horror film in existence in which “let’s go through that dark forest” was ever a good idea, and unsurprisingly, it takes roughly seconds for the forest to do those creepy things that movie forests do. Upon spending a night in an abandoned cabin, each of them experiences a horrible nightmare. Phil is found naked, in a trance, worshiping a headless idol in the attic. Luke wakes up with a claw-shaped puncture wound on his chest, and the memories of Robert’s death haunt him more vividly than ever.
The Ritual establishes its characters and their relationships well early on: Luke is plagued with repeated visions of Robert’s death and is clearly miserable with guilt. Whether his friends directly or indirectly blame him for it, they’ve never been further apart. That frustration, grief and latent antagonism are their own source of tension. Guilt and preservation of self-image drive many of the decisions the characters make.
This also introduces an interesting element which usually damns other genre fare. These characters are stupid men who make stupid decisions that cause a lot of problems for them. But these are also four men who can’t stand to be around each other because of a horrible event they don’t want to talk about. They want the trip to be over quickly, they’re willing to take shortcuts, and they’re willing to lash out at each other once the forest begins to challenge their masculinity. Their decisions and reactions feel natural and human.
There’s a constant sense of mounting, uncomfortable dread, owed mostly to the fantastic sound design. Watch this on a good sound system because the audio experience is a huge part of what makes The Ritual so effective. This is mostly a slow-burn, with a “there’s-definitely-something-wrong” feeling to nearly every scene that puts the focus on tension and atmosphere rather than jump scares.
It’s also somewhat playful in the way it withholds and dispenses the actual horror. The source of the noise that haunts them isn’t fully revealed into late into the movie, and every time we almost get a glimpse, the camera cuts away. It evokes fear without showing much, relying on the reactions of the characters to create a sense of dreadful anticipation. When the thing following them finally is revealed, it’s a showcase for some excellent creature design.
There are some scripting problems with The Ritual when it comes to tying everything together, and the third-act reveal of what’s going on in the forest is frightening and intense even if it doesn’t have the thematic conclusion it felt like it was building towards. They’re minor complaints against a very well-made movie. It’s the filmmaking that really makes this stand out. David Bruckner’s direction cleverly balances character and terror. The editing is genuinely nail-biting. The cinematography blends clean, wide landscape shots with dark, claustrophobic forest interiors. The sound design is master class. Bruckner, who until now only directed anthology segments on The Signal, V/H/S, and Southbound, is confident and skilled in his debut feature. Like last year’s terrific Gerald’s Game, it blends tangible and psychological horror in a way that really crawls under your skin. This is the horror film to beat in 2018.
The Ritual (2018) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every shot straight into the trees
Do a Shot: every time the group gets lost
Take a Drink: every time the monster is heard
Take a Drink: for every instrumental sting