It’s been awhile since we’ve had a good “creepy stuff is happening in the woods” film. Some might say the recent “Blair Witch” sequel filled that niche, but it just didn’t satisfy my craving. Wait, did you hear that rustling? Sounds like it came from behind the trees . . . Come on, let’s go and see if it’s something good or something that should remain hidden in the woods.
In “The Ritual” four friends go on a vacation to commemorate the life of one of their own after his tragic death. Honoring his last wish, they set out to hike the “King’s Trail,” located somewhere on the border between Norway and Sweden. However, when one of them injures themselves on the hike they decide they need to cut the journey short and head back to the safety of the lodge. Deciding that they can’t take the long way back, they decide to cut through the forest. Things quickly unravel for the friends though as they soon realize they’re being stalked by something that lives in the woods.
At its core “The Ritual” is a creature feature film that is made better based on the strength of its characters. Hutch (Robert James-Collier) is the defacto cool guy who leads the group on their hike. Then there’s Dom (Sam Troughton) who comes off a bit standoffish, but with good reason. Luke (Rafe Spall) is the main protagonist of the story and the one dealing with the most as he has a tremendous amount of guilt after the death of his friend. And how could we forget about Phil (Arsher Ali) who . . . Okay, it’s kind of easy to forget about Phil cause there really isn’t too much to his character even though some of the strangest stuff in the film happens to him.
While I would say “Ritual” is primarily a creature feature it’s also a bit of a psychological horror movie. Luke is constantly grappling with the events that surround the death of his friend and these manifest as very real nightmares that pop up in the forest in aesthetically beautiful ways. The events around his friend’s death took place in a store so Luke will see store shelving in the forest or ceiling lights and it looks amazing on screen.
The other characters are also dealing with similar issues, but we don’t get to see what plagues them as Luke is our view into this world. Usually Luke is waking up the other characters from traumatic nightmares and we get the barest hints about what’s troubling them, but the film doesn’t delve into their issues. Which is unfortunate because I was desperate to know what sort of issues were at play for characters like Hutch. For instance, he wakes up from one of his nightmares covered in piss, but we never find out why. He’s the coolest guy there, what could possibly be hiding in his closet?! It would have added so much more to the film to see the psyche of these characters, but I suppose there’s only so much you can do in 90 minutes.
Character development aside, though, a creature feature doesn’t work unless the creature works and in “The Ritual” the creature is wonderfully well designed. This is a lower budget project, but they smartly work around that to ensure that the monster doesn’t come off as a SyFy channel creation. For most of the film the creature is hidden in shadows and obscured in the thickness of the forest. And when we finally do get to see it we find a design that is born from old world Lovecraftian horrors. It’s a very unique looking beast that only ramps up the tension when it’s finally revealed.
About the only negative comment I have about “The Ritual” is that the third act suffers from a bit of slowdown as the film takes a breather to explain what’s going on. It’s a necessary part of the film, but it feels like it could have been handled differently so that it didn’t suddenly slam on the breaks. That being said, “The Ritual” still has an emotionally strong ending that puts the film back on track and left me feeling completely satisfied. If you’ve got Netflix, you definitely need to check this one out.