Review: 'The Ritual' Is 2/3 Of A Good Horror Movie, 1/3 Bollocks

Kristy Puchko | Film | February 9, 2018

Never go into the woods. If horror movies have taught me nothing else, it’s NEVER go into the woods. Sure, you might think you and your college bros are proper men who can handle hiking and camping and such. But in the woods there is a level of nature and mystery that can get the best of anyone. And in The Ritual, that takes the shape of a horrifying beast that rattles trees and howls like the doors of hell have been ripped open.

Based on the Adam Nevill novel, this Netflix acquisition follows a batch of English friends on a harrowing journey through the Scandinavian wilderness. But when one of them twists an ankle early on, their scenic route seems torturous. So why not take a short-cut through the foreboding woods? Just ignore that full-grown elk, gutted and pinned up high in tree branches as if placed there like a butterfly in a display case. It’s raining? Cool, best take shelter in this strange hut with the disturbing headless statue made of sticks and antlers. And that horrible howling sound? Probably a bear or a deer or who even knows what Scandinavia’s deal is.

Reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, The Ritual has its skeptical city slicker heroes blithely ignoring troubling signs, then getting lost in a forest that seems to be actively working against them. With each passing night, their situation grows more dire as they lose supplies and friends. With it, the promise of seeing this mysterious beast plumps with anticipation. Director David Bruckner stirs tension, cutting from panicked close-ups of a haunted Luke (Rafe Spall) to the forest, so still, but not so silent. Our eyes—like Luke’s—scan for something, anything as our heart races in terror.

When we finally get a glimpse of something in the trees, we can only make out that is big and fast. And that’s enough to terrorize us. But in the final act, Bruckner drops the coyness with his creature, showing it off in lingering long-shots and creepy close-ups. It’s a design that’s satisfyingly strange and spooky. But that’s about the only good thing I can say about the film’s finale.

In the second act, The Ritual turns surreal, with the men’s nightmares playing out in waking terrors. For Luke, this means reliving a traumatic event in a liquor store, which re-emerges all over the labyrinthian forest. Florescent lights buzz to life, lighting the dark night with a terrible hum. Shelves stocked with liquor block his view of the beast that stalks him. And then there’s the blood. His regrets haunt him and thrill us, brightly set against a dark landscape that trembles with new threats. When the lights go out, the forest once more seems endless and inescapable, devoid of people or any chance of salvation. Then, Bruckner abruptly shifts genres, eradicating this isolation, and laying out props for a bizarre and confounding action-hero finale. There’ll be blood, and fire, and guns, and an axe. But there won’t be satisfaction.

I don’t care that this is based on a book. I don’t know or care how the book ends. Bruckner set up an atmospheric and deeply eerie horror movie, then chucked it all away to make Spall a spitting berserker. It’s unbelievable and disappointing. And I can’t help but wonder if Bruckner lost faith in his concept, or just isn’t ready for feature-length horror yet. He’s had a hand in directing three previous horror movies, V/H/S, The Signal and Southbound. But each is made up of shorts or vignettes. Perhaps without the ability to rush out with a grisly twist or a gory button beat, Bruckner was at a loss. Perhaps he felt beholden to Joe Barton’s script or Nevill’s novel. I don’t care about his reasons. What I do care about is that The Ritual sets its protagonist up as a coward, then instead of choosing to redeem his past mistakes or condemn him for repeating them, it chooses…what exactly? Guns and gore, and little else.

frameborder="0" allow="autoplay; encrypted-media" allowfullscreen

The Ritual premieres on Netflix February 9th.


Join the discussion in this post's comment section

Read More