It’s been hit or miss for me, regarding Netflix originals as of late; so I approached their new horror movie about backpackers in the woods, The Ritual, with some skepticism. Would it really bring on the scares, or feel more like a TV movie?
I was not disappointed. The Ritual is pants-shittingly scary, beautifully shot, and with an intelligent script. It’s in the tradition of flicks like The Blair Witch Project (which certain aspects strongly remind me of), Deliverance…and let’s toss in a smidgen of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, just for extra flavor.
It starts with a bunch of old school friends at the pub, planning their next vacation together. You know, very civil and civilized stuff. After they’re done with the pub, one of them—Luke (Rafe Spall), the presumed alcoholic and fuck-up of the bunch—insists on going to the liquor store to pick up some booze for the road.
In just that one subtle little scene outside of the liquor store, as the rest of the friends murmur amongst themselves about their reluctance to go to the store with Luke—the narrative tension of the entire rest of the movie is set. And I feel that’s brilliant.
Well, without giving too much away, they end up on that “vacation” with each other—hiking through the wilds of Sweden. The fact that they are going to run into severe misfortune there is pretty much a foregone conclusion. It’s very much in the vein of The Blair Witch Project, where they’re walking and walking through the woods but don’t seem to get anywhere; they see weird artifacts; they start fighting amongst themselves; and so on.
What makes The Ritual not like Blair Witch, however, is in the character arc of Luke. This is Luke’s story from start to finish—about a man literally facing his demons. You know, flicks like this end nihilistically like Blair Witch all the time—with everyone presumed dead, no hope, fade to black the end. The movies where if any character learns anything at all, it doesn’t matter—because life doesn’t matter.
But at the risk of spoiling the film, I will say this much: The Ritual is in the (very old) tradition of horror stories that provide a “road map” for the Dark Night Of The Soul. And in that road map, there is an end-point. You process the horror, you go through this personal alchemy, and you come out the other side. And in this day and age…I’m not sure I necessarily want to see something with the ultimate bleakness of a Blair Witch.
What makes Luke different from his friends is that he is fucked up. He was fucked up before they went on this scary journey through Swedish backwoods hell. But when they end up facing the Ultimate Horror—something utterly beyond reason, in the grand style of Lovecraft—he’s the only one who can even remotely deal with it. Because he’s already seen the Horror. That’s why he needed a bottle of vodka at the beginning of the movie.
So you’ve got some interesting ideas here, a very unusual rhythm to how the horror scenes are rolled out (hence, the pants-shitting), and…you know, it almost reminds me of the cult horror movie Session 9, if anyone’s seen that. It’s not the Saw franchise, if you know what I’m saying. Though The Ritual takes a very surprising batshit crazy turn about 20-30 minutes before the end that can give you more of that in-your-face horror lunacy, if that’s what you’re into.
I don’t know much about the director, David Bruckner, other than that he co-directed 2007’s The Signal and directed the “Amateur Night” sequence from 2012’s V/H/S (the latter of which I did watch, and I can definitely see the influence of that piece in this new movie). And Andy Serkis apparently helped produce the film, so…well, I guess he knows pretty much what he’s doing.
Anyway, there you have it. The Ritual. If you have Netflix, go enjoy this movie. And go shit your pants.