A thoroughly average mish-mash of several superior horrors.
Back in 1999 when we were all as blissfully oblivious as small children, the release of camping-nightmare The Blair Witch Project terrified the world. Since then, there have been many, many, many rip-offs that have tried to emulate its timeless formula but miss the essence of what made it great. The Ritual, which borrows elements from Blair Witch, Dog Soldiers and the criminally underrated Kill List has an unsettling first half but enters the realms of predictability and silliness in the latter.
Spurred on by the traumatic murder of his best friend, Luke (Rafe Spall) and his three mates go on a hiking holiday to Sweden that their friend dreamed of. After taking a detour into the woods, they soon realise they aren’t alone.
The opening scene establishes the admittedly horrible backstory, showing Luke and his friend going into a local off-licence, only to meet two thugs robbing the place. Luke hides sheepishly, whilst his friend is left out in the open. A machete slash and pipe-bash later, we cut forward to Sweden, where Luke wakes from this recurring nightmare. David Bruckner carefully utilises the intensive lighting and static flickering to edge our unease while appealing to our protective instincts and inner cowards. This strong beginning sets up an interesting dynamic between the friends, as we’re left to decipher whether they all feel Luke is responsible for the killing, or if he was right to try save himself. As much as they might try to avoid the topic, it’s unavoidable – something the overwhelming suffocation of the woods they venture into represents.
Bruckner subtly teases the grisly realities of the forest; a moss-covered, rusty Volkswagen camper van, hand-carved symbols on trees (reminiscent of the hand-woven figures that hung from the Blair woods), then a Dog Soldiers-esque mangled animal that hints the fun is about to begin. These little nudges are a more effective platform for fear than the subsequent nonsense. A disturbing dream sequence in a cabin is the point the film turns away from psychological unease to more overt scares. The film also irritatingly insists on constant flashbacks to the eventful opening scene, which mostly serve no purpose other than to emphasise the grief Luke is facing – although we saw his best mate get his head caved in so I don’t think that was in question.
Soon it descends into generic horror monster fodder that entertains just enough to keep you from falling asleep. It’s not just the monster in the woods; of course there’s a cult. There’s definitely the spirit of Kill List in these scenes, but sadly the sense of dread that was expertly built in that movie is non-existent here. While the imaginative creature crafted does present a real threat, it lacks the nerve-shredding qualities of other movie monsters such as Pennywise, who embodies our fears rather than try to simply frighten us. In terms of its look, imagine one of James Cameron’s creatures from Pandora went emo.
The one thing that holds the affair together is the chemistry between the cast. Robert James-Collier, Arsher Ali and Sam Troughton alongside Spall have a firm hold on the deadpan patter that fuels British humour. Contrasting the darkly comedic moments with some pretty gruesome moments – Ali exclaiming “I don’t know Dominic I’m not a fucking bear expert – was a smart move from writers Joe Barton and Adam Neville. You can feel their style, that shined in British drama Humans, through the terrific cast. But without the much-needed intensity and lurking presence of terror, this is average at best.