‘We all go through it, one way or the other, but usually with fewer gory deaths‘ – Dara Higgins can relate to the lost in the woods horror of The Ritual
It’s a lads’ night out and Luke (Rafe Spall) is getting the frustrated. His old college muckers don’t want a mad one. It’s a school night, Dom points out. Luke looks as if those days and nights should be behind him. His friends are acting their age, wives, kids, careers. Luke wants them to hit the party zones for a lads’ holiday. Rob suggests a hike through Sweden. Cop on, right? Where’s the fun in that?
Having convinced Rob to extend the night they enter a local off licence, wherein a violent robbery is taking place. Rob cops it, but Luke, showing his true colours, cowers and hides. He’s haunted from then on by the vision of his friend lying on the floor of the fluorescent-lit shop, his blood pooling underneath his mangled head.
To honour his memory his friends, Dom (Sam Troughton), Hutch (Rob James-Collier), Phil (Arsher Ali) and Luke, go on a trek over the hills of Sweden, just as Rob wanted. It’s arduous, but worthy, until Dom sprains a knee and the gang decide to go off the beaten path and take a shortcut through the scary woods. Lads, come on. The scary woods?
The forest’s impressively oppressive. As they trudge they come across the ominous corpse of a deer, recently slaughtered. They sense that they’re being stalked by someone…..OR SOMETHING. Later they take refuge from a storm in a dilapidated old shack. Upstairs there’s some kind of antlerfisted totem. It’s right unsettling, and no mistake. The night’s dreams are disturbing and vivid. Luke, who is our protagonist, finds himself back in that off licence, watching his friend’s murder play out again and again.
Helplessly lost, the gang wander about the scary woods encountering some stock scares from the Lost In The Woods canon. Half glimpsed something or other, evidence of previous wanderers, scary noises. As nerves fray, home truths are bandied about. Before long the whining turn to SCREAMS! Because that’s what happens in movies like this. People get dragged off in the dark by the whatsit, the shadow, the yoke. The stalker thingmajig.
As a protagonist Luke’s authentically unlikeable. The lad who sessioned through the recession. Spends his weekends fretting over his accumulators, complaining about not being allowed to smoke indoors any more, bitching about your wife and kids behind your back. We’ve all got a mate like that. All the effort is gone into this odious prick so that his friends are reduced to mere traits. Dom, the moaning one, Hutch, the nice one, Phil, the droll one. They’re almost ephemera, and you’ll probably not notice if they get clawed out of the picture.
By the end we’re introduced to the beast, and its mythos. It’s true of all horror, that the longer the monster is off screen, the scarier it is. When the stalker is revealed in the 3rd act any sense of dread is gone, and the film reverts to type. The monster’s not a bad concoction – and I won’t spoil it here – but it’s not scary, it’s not dreadful. It’s kinda bucolic. In the end, the movie’s played out, the denouement is bog-standard. If anything, it’s a little confusing. What’s Luke learned here? Because, let’s face it, this shit has gone down worse than the incident in the Off Licence that triggered this ill-fated journey. Considerably worse. Where’s the triumph? And what’s with the whole Ritual itself, if this ancient god-beast wanders the woods doing its worst to displaced backpackers.
Of course, it’s not really about any of that, is it? It’s just some garbled allegory for growing up and taking responsibility for your life and whatever. We all go through it, one way or the other, but usually with fewer gory deaths. And if Luke’s personal journey is trying to make up for doing nothing when his friend was killed, well, he’s fucked that one up righteously.
Based on a book of the same name, The Ritual offers very little new. Its brevity requires a brisk pace, and the forest is propah moody, some of the bantz fizzes briefly and the actor’s performances are good, breathing life into the cyphers they have to portray. But this is ultimately a movie that will suffice when you’ve exhausted all other options on Netflix.
Also published on Medium.