Just in case you needed another reason to stay out of the woods, here comes The Ritual. And while this tale of city boys lost in the forest doesn’t bring much that’s new to the table, it does have plenty of atmosphere and misery.
The Ritual is a bit of a paint by numbers horror film. Take the tragic opening and the group bonding adventure from The Descent, add the creepy tree symbols and haunted cabin from The Blair Witch Project, and sprinkle in the cult-like worship of a deity from The Wicker Man and you’ve got The Ritual.
The opening scene quickly establishes the core cast of five mates who go on an epic vacation each year. When a liquor store robbery gone bad claims the life of Robert (Paul Reid), the group reconvenes for a ceremonial trip to honor him six months later. To pay homage to their fallen friend, the college friends – defacto lead Luke (Rafe Spall), alpha male Hutch (Robert James-Collier), out of shape Dom (Sam Troughton), and nice guy Phil (Arsher Ali) – set out on a hike in Northern Sweden. Fairly quickly there’s inclement weather and a sprained knee to contend with, and before you can say “bad decision” the quartet leave the trail behind in order to take a shortcut through the woods.
It’s a fertile premise, even if it’s not altogether surprising when the outcome proves less than ideal. By the end of the first day they’ve discovered the mutilated corpse of an animal hung in the trees and a torrential rain drives them into an abandoned cabin where they find an effigy of a headless creature with antlers for hands. These early events are effectively staged and shot by David Bruckner, who loads the film with grim atmosphere and a mournful score. At this point it is still unclear if The Ritual is about psychological demons, creepy woodspeople or some kind of monster; and that uncertainty ensures plenty of chills.
When the group decides they must spend the night in the cabin, Joe Barton’s script, adapted from a novel by Adam Nevill, introduces a new element: hallucinatory nightmares. Not unlike a waking dream, Luke relives Robert’s death when the liquor store, overridden by foliage from the woods, appears in a flash of white light. The synthesis of two worlds is effectively unsettling, as is the five-fingered mark that has appeared on Luke’s chest when he awakens. From then on it’s a race to escape the woods before dusk arrives, which is when the nightmares invariably return and the fatal attacks by *something* begins.
Unfortunately, Barton’s script favors repetition rather than innovation, which means seemingly endless scenes of the group trudging through ominous woods, griping at each other and getting increasingly paranoid. The moody atmosphere remains, but the lack of new developments weighs the middle section of the film down. It’s not until the group has been sufficiently winnowed down and the film moves into its third act that things perk back up. Though the change in tone revives Barton’s script, by this time viewers’ attention may have waned.
The Ritual is strongest early on when it’s unclear what is going on. The camaraderie between the group is solid and believable, and unlike some other films that begin with a tragedy, the film uses Robert’s death as a major plot point, returning to it over and over again in Luke’s nightmares. The visual aesthetic of the woods is also really effective, lending the film a nightmarish quality, particularly when it is raining (the actors look legitimately cold, wet and miserable).
Aside from a repetitive middle section and a reliance on cribbed horror tropes, The Ritual will definitely make audiences reconsider any plans they have to go for a hike in the woods anytime soon.