Never take the shortcut. That should be a quintessential rule of thumb for any and all characters existing in a horror film, provided they are aware of the imminent danger waiting to pounce from the shadows. Of course, were they to heed such advice, then there would be no feature-length versions, only shorts, and those probably wouldn’t be very scary at all because the protagonists would have done the very thing to avoid their grisly demises. That being said, when faced with a trek across the remote Swedish highlands with a friend lagging behind due to an injured ankle, one supposes that taking the road through the forest that should get them to the camp more quickly is strategic thinking, right?
The Ritual, by David Bruckner, who earned notoriety for directing the Amateur Night segment in 2012’s V/H/S, sends a group of long-time friends for a hike in remote, northern Sweden for a little healthy, spirited action. The band is still dealing with the sudden and shocking death of their friend six months ago, and one member, Luke (Rafe Spall), is especially afflicted by emotional trauma, given that he was there at the time a duo of thugs murdered their companion but was too petrified to do anything about it. A minor accident to one of the amateur hikers (Sam Troughton) prompts the group to take a route through the woods that should, in theory, get them back to base in shorter time. Little do they know that an ancient force best left alone reigns supreme on these hallowed grounds.
Yes, Bruckner’s latest effort is yet another entry in the impressively long list of ‘lost in the forest being chased by a monster’ films, but before anyone loses interest too soon, it should be noted that a good director will always be capable of taking the familiar and making it just as engaging, if not more so, than the previous hundreds of times. Luckily, David Bruckner is one such filmmaker, and his latest endeavour is a tension-filled, mostly thrilling escapade with a generally compelling theme running throughout — which is typically what the best horror films strive for other than just audience shrieks and ghoulish surprises.
In fact, The Ritual doesn’t begin in the Swedish highlands, but rather somewhere in urban England, where Luke is a first-hand witness to the brutal murder of his good friend at the hands of a couple of low-class thieves attempting to loot a liquor store. It’s a shocking scene, offering a glimpse into the sort of violence the rest of the film has in store, yet one with emotional consequences that spread over the remainder of the film. Had he mustered a bit more bravery to intervene (or lunacy, depending on who one asks), perhaps a good friend would be having fun on the hike with them. The rest of the group doesn’t really suspect anything about Luke’s relative cowardice, save for one, and when things turn sour, people begin to get things off their chest. What results is ostensibly a story of personal redemption for Luke handled quite smoothly by director Bruckner and writer Joe Barton, who balance scares with genuine storytelling that helps engage the viewer with this band of ill-fitted adventurers. It would be nice if every other word uttered wasn’t an f-bomb, but one can’t ask for too much.
As for the picture’s horror inclinations, The Ritual serves up a very nice package. There are a handful of sequences in which the lighting is absolutely bonkers, such as first night the friends spend in the woods. They discover an old, desolate house during a ruthless rainstorm, and the sparks of white light from the lightening glistening against the blackness of the woods is jaw-dropping. The filmmakers also deftly have the characters stumble into vastly different looking sections of the forest, and rather than having the band trot and run endlessly against the exact same backdrop to communicate a sense of getting lost, the forest in fact has incredibly diverse flora and geological qualities. The variety not only functions as an escape from visual boredom, but diversifies the sort of predicaments the protagonists face, as well as how they must fend off the malevolent force stalking them.
On the topic of the story’s main antagonist, this is arguably the area where The Ritual is the least interesting. The idea of an ancient Scandinavian god of some sort guarding its land and possibly hunting down the humans as sacrificial lambs is an intriguing one, and as often is the case, the sequences when the creature is mostly hidden from view work best. Like so many modern thrillers and monster movies, the final third indulges in too much exposition, relating in minute detail what is happening. This isn’t a problem in of itself, as the explanation is kind of neat, but then the tone shifts from pure horror to action, which inadvertently lessons the tension rather than heightening it.
David Bruckner once again makes a case for himself as one of the more talented, confident horror film directors modern cinema has to offer. The Ritual isn’t perfect, but it delivers on most of its promise, and even then, what it does well largely overshadows the problems. If this keeps up, seeking out any new Bruckner film will itself become a ritual.