Ritual (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Here is a piece of work with potential to become a situational cult horror picture despite a distractingly forced dialogue that almost sounds like a soap opera. However, for a story involving a mysterious cult in rural Texas, it fails to delve into the requisite creepy details designed to address our curiosities and answer our questions. Instead, it employs standard techniques that plague recent, inferior horror films such as a wounded character walking about simply waiting to get picked off, shaky camerawork and grainy night vision, a whole lot of screaming and yelling. The final third might have benefited from a complete rewrite.

In the middle of the night, a distressed woman (Lisa Marie Summerscales) calls her husband, Tom (Dean Cates), after she kills a man (Derek Phillips) in a motel. Although there is an apparent rift in their marriage and Lovely is adamant in refusing to say over the phone what exactly had happened, Tom takes on the long drive to see what is going on and, if possible, try to help. Neither of them knows that the man who had been stabbed in the torso several times is a member of a cult—and his fellow members are heading to the seedy motel.

The picture strives to establish a distinct style clearly influenced by David Lynch and, to some degree, the early Coen brothers. The south being the setting is no accident. The action takes place mostly in one room and a parking lot but great tension is established exactly because, as viewers watching an increasingly desperate situation unfold, we know that the sooner they remove themselves from these two places, the better their chances of survival. As expected, Tom and Lovely’s marital problems are brought to surface almost immediately and this clouds their judgment—the very element they need to be crystal clear if they were to successfully extricate themselves out of their predicament.

Another technique is its utilization of a flashback a few minutes after a cut scene. For example, Tom opens the trunk of the stabbed man’s car and, for a split-second, the camera hints at the character making an important discovery. The screen fades to black and the action returns to Lovely in the motel room, looking in the mirror, traumatized, very likely regretting the decisions she’d taken during the night.

Then Tom returns to the room. A flashback is triggered to show us what he’d seen in the trunk. This technique works for the most part because it breaks a highly intense scene, forces us to digest an eerie calm while the material has our undivided attention, and then back to that curious thing. It keeps us slightly off-balance as more tension builds in the background. Writer-director Mickey Keating is clearly influenced by the great filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.

Although the eventual appearance of the cultists are initially horrifying, they are not given enough interesting courses of action to take to prove that they are top-tier villains. They wear skull masks, appear in groups, and walk real slowly. We see the cultists’ faces. However, the screenplay appears stuck in delivering standard third-act horror film tropes rather than continuing to engage the audience by beginning to answer our burning questions.

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