“We’re not the only animals in the woods”
At first glance, and much to the elation of all horror fans, David Bruckner’s British debut feature film The Ritual (2017) appears to be a chest-punching ride along the murky underbelly of our collective nightmares. Based on Adam Nevill’s 2011 novel of the same name, the film was shot in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, a location sure to unhinge a few jaws with the help of Andrew Shulkind’s striking cinematography.
Five old university friends meet to plan their next trip together. During a liquor store robbery, Rob (Paul Reid) loses his life, while his friend Luke (Rafe Spall) is left helplessly watching the light leave his friend’s eyes. Months later, the four remaining friends decide to pay tribute to Robert’s last wish, and set off on a hiking adventure through the wilderness of the Swedish mountains. Dom’s (Sam Troughton) injury forces the group to take a shortcut through the menacing forest. As this route is plunged in ancient shadows and eerie silence, their adventure turns into a survival journey – with an evil presence haunting their every step.
What starts off as a survival thriller quickly tilts towards the witchcraft horror waters of The Blair Witch Project (1999), dismissing the latter’s notorious ‘found footage’ technique, while promising equal thrills. As with most horror films nowadays, the first half of The Ritual does a sublime job of building tension, setting the pace and amplifying the horror elements against the backdrop of a rustling forest. In step with the growing momentum, the direction and photography foster an enchantingly dark ambience.
Unfortunately, the terrifying chase through the stale wilderness crashes into clichés, ending abruptly due to a stifling dose of exposition. The script grows weaker as the film trudges on, leaving the four friends no air to develop as characters. This, in turn, makes them too lightheaded to process the meaning behind the metaphysical terrors that are induced by a monster of Norse mythological origins.
The said creature is an ancient deity, a Jötunn, specifically introduced as a bastard son of the treacherous god Loki and, therefore, worshipped by the cultists living in the belly of the forest. It lurks in the shadows long enough to scrape nerves raw and overstimulate the audience’s anxious minds. And yet, the creature’s interesting abilities and hideous duality somehow fail to preserve the sense of terror that is achieved early on.
Although the overall undertone and the performances of the four actors are convincing, the script proves too inert to build on concepts such as: trauma, guilt, friendship and social constructs that exist outside the standardised norm. Embracing a similar cult community frenzy to the one found in Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019), and the claustrophobic unease in Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2006), Bruckner takes all the right steps towards delivering a gripping project. But then, choking on the pressure that must accompany releasing a debut film, he lunges at the trap of cautious, predictable choices, leading to a finale that nullifies all the previously raised expectations.
Recent horror productions have tried hard to leave the beaten path, opting for more creatively audacious options that are deep-rooted in the human psyche. Despite the banalities, the craving for a surge of adrenaline through spasming veins often blinds us to the genre’s many shortcomings. In the case of The Ritual, peel your eyes to the screen during the first half, then feel free to chase the high elsewhere.