After the tragic death of their friend, Luke (Rafe Spall), Dom (Sam Troughton), Hutch (Robert James-Collier) and Phil (Arsher Ali) honour him by taking a hiking holiday to Sweden. But after whiny Dom twists his ankle, they take a shortcut back. Bad idea.
Following his previous genre efforts Southbound and V/H/S, David Bruckner’s witty horror The Ritual treads a fine line between scares and laughs, but this examination of late-thirties masculinity in crisis by way of forest-bound terror is right on target. With the all British cast and dry sense of humour, you’d swear this was a British production from the likes of Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, or Neil Marshall. But unlike the celebrated Cornetto Trilogy, Bruckner’s effort is very much at the horror end of the horror-comedy spectrum. Though the plot recalls The Blair Witch Project, the film it most resembles stylistically is the superb The Descent.
Yet for all its use of horror tropes, The Ritual never feels derivative. Like all good genre pictures, the terror that awaits the men in the forest is symbolic, a metaphor for the guilt Luke feels for not saving his friend after they stumbled on a robbery and he was stabbed. As the men traipse further into the woods, terrorised by paganistic talismans and a gutted deer hanging from a tree, they bicker and blame each other, an unspoken resentment towards Luke never far from the surface. On paper each of the four friends aren’t much more than archetypes: Hutch- the alpha male, Luke – the lead, Dom – the annoying coward and Phil – the poor guy caught in the middle.
However, the performances of each transform their characters into something approaching real people, relatable through their totally average normality, utterly unequipped to deal with the terrors befalling them. On a visceral level, the scares deliver too, the tension ratcheting up nicely as the guys bed down in a creepy shack straight out of The Evil Dead, troubled by nightmares that leave Luke with a mysterious mark on his chest. It’s nothing horror aficionados haven’t seen before, but with a knowingness that never tips into full on irony, the familiar structure remains effective. Nightmares quickly become the least of the friends’ worries, though, as they’re stalked by an entity of elemental terror.
In true Predator fashion, the monster isn’t fully revealed until the film’s final, bloody act, but rest assured it does not disappoint. Without spoiling the reveal, it is truly a Jungian creation – if Swedish woodland could come to life, it would look like this. The Ritual admittedly brings little new to the table in terms of pushing the horror genre forward. Nevertheless, as a genre exercise it is superb, and as a study of a modern masculinity in crisis it has surprising depth.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell