Netflix continues to release a lot of genre content in 2018. To date, we have already seen The Open House, The Cloverfield Paradox, Before I Wake, and Altered Carbon debut on the streaming giant. Unfortunately, it’s been a rough go for horror fans with both The Open House and The Cloverfield Paradox underwhelming. Initial glimpses of The Ritual inspired some optimism; the previews suggested a dark and intense, if not entirely familiar, horror story. I put The Ritual at the top of my ‘must watch’ list and have anxiously awaited its release today.
Based on a novel by Adam Nevill, The Ritual’s storyline will certainly seem instantly familiar to horror film fans. Following the tragic death of a friend, four men reunite to reminisce and honour him on a hike through the Swedish wilderness. When one member of the group twists his knee, the friends take a shortcut through a dense forest and quickly discover the gutted remains of a bear impaled onto trees. Lost in the woods in a storm, they find an abandoned cabin and signs of witchcraft or pagan ritualism. Haunted by nightmarish visions the friends find themselves being hunted by an unseen monster in the woods.
The Ritual isn’t going to score any points for originality with a premise borrowed from a long line of horror films. Urban characters getting lost in the woods and encountering backwoods dangers is a common horror narrative and I was alternately reminded of several films including The Descent, The Blair Witch Project, and Deliverance. Fortunately, what The Ritual may lack in originality it more than ups for with atmosphere, character, and suspense.
From its opening tragedy director David Bruckner sets a dark tone with an act of violence that shocks – it’s not exploitative in its graphicness but wholly unnerves you with how suddenly it punctures the screen. Its narrative moves briskly and tightly as it takes us from the streets to England to the lonely Swedish wilderness, introducing us to our four main characters and quickly establishing the tensions that exist among them. Luke, the main character, feels guilty for hiding while their friend was killed during a store robbery, a sentiment shared by some of the other members of the group. Much of the first third of the film is devoted to character development and exploring the dynamics among the group, which is too often rare in horror films. Importantly, the character development coincides with the film’s establishment of mounting dangers so the narrative never feels like its dragging.
The cinematography in the film is quite good with its wide angle shots of the Swedish wilderness emphasizing a sense of isolation. Bruckner intersperses some disturbing imagery across the film distinguishing what could have been fairly rote copies of similar scenes from past films and giving them a renewed sense of dread. One scene with a member of the group praying to a disturbing effigy while under some trance will evoke unease. And an early, quick glimpse of the ‘monster’ caught me off guard and prompted a nice jump. Yet for the most part, The Ritual is not a film that relies on jump scares but rather a relatively slow-burn that’s invested in getting under your skin.
Some of the film’s momentum and tension are derailed in the final act, which slows things down a little as compared to the first two acts. The climax picks up the pace and gives the audience a satisfying character arc for Luke though the conclusion felt a bit abrupt. For a smaller film the monster effects were impressive; Bruckner wisely keeps his creature largely in the shadows but we’re shown just enough to be satisfied while leaving much to the imagination. The screenplay also avoid the tedious need to tell the audience too much – like the monster itself, the ‘why’ isn’t exhaustively explained.
The Ritual is not an overly original horror film but it’s definitely a strong, suspenseful tale worth watching. Strong acting, suspenseful tone, good creature effects, and a suspenseful tone make up for an over-reliance on familiar horror tropes. For horror fans, The Ritual on Netflix offers the first solid horror entry of 2018.