The Ritual (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
For a horror film that spends most of its time showing its characters walking around a creepy forest, occasionally encountering a curious thing etched on trees or hanging amongst them, “The Ritual,” based on the novel by Adam Nevill and adapted to the screen by Joe Barton, is able to generate some solid scares despite a limp third act. What results is a lopsided creature feature, certainly watchable but nothing special.
The pool of potential victims includes four longtime friends from university (Rafe Spall, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton, Arsher Ali) who decide to hike across Northern Sweden six months after the murder of their friend, Rob (Paul Reid), in a liquor store. Luke (Spall) is wracked with guilt considering the fact that he was with Rob at the time but instead chose to hide behind shelves during the robbery. The trip, in a way, serves to honor and remember their fallen comrade. There is solid acting across the board and the performers manage to sell even the most ridiculous and laughable lines of dialogue.
Atmospheric nearly every step of the way, director David Bruckner borrows heavily from Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ classic “The Blair Witch Project,” particularly in the way he allows the camera to rest on a group of trees for an extra beat or two in order to provide the audience time to consider or imagine something hiding there. The prolonged stretches of characters hiking around and across increasingly foreboding woods is another influence. A third borrowed element involves the increasing anxiety amongst friends. Thankfully, it does not involve a lost map nor seizure-like camera movements.
Bruckner understands the requisite patience in building genuine tension. This is not a picture for viewers who expect one succeeding jump scare after another. Rather, it is for those willing to observe how dynamics change within a group when stress threatens to derail their survival. Particular standouts involve unsettling dream sequences and hallucinations. Notice that when Luke’s mind goes back to that night in the liquor store, at least one element from the original scene is changed. It communicates a real trauma and an impression of how the guilty person’s mind is attempting to sort through it within the scope of the horrific events in the woods. These are the most inspired images in the film.
Less impressive is the third act which involves yet another isolated group of individuals who must look and act in a stereotypical way simply because the genre has established them to be this way. I thought it was an easy, uninspired route and the events that take place cater toward those who need quick and unchallenging answers. In other words, the material succumbs eventually to the pressures of being easily understood for mass public consumption. I did, however, enjoy the look of the stalker in the woods once it longer feels the need to camouflage itself amongst the browns and greens.