The Ritual just arrived on Netflix US on February 9, 2018, after general release in the UK and Ireland last October. It’s directed by David Bruckner (The Signal, 2007, and the “Amateur Night” segment in V/H/S, 2012) and co-written by Joe Barton and Adam Nevill. Nevill wrote the fantastic novel of the same name (2011). (Aside: go and read the novel.) Since I loved the novel, I’ve been following the film with anticipation, and so part of me expected disappointment as I began it as soon as it was humanly possible for me to do so on the day it arrived on Netflix. I was not disappointed. Far from it. In fact, The Ritual is my favorite horror film of 2018 so far.
Sleep is becoming one of the crisis points of late modernity, as the steady encroachment of the “24/7” plugged-in world only intensifies sleep’s already uncanny nature.[i] To sleep is to slip into a realm of darkness, irrationality, and the supernatural, a realm that is not only profoundly opposed to the contemporary illuminated world but that has always lain uncomfortably close to death. Indeed, the Western way of sleeping has been described as a “lie down and die” model.[ii] To walk or talk while sleeping, in particular, is to act in ways divorced from the world of light and reason, to act without volition and the consent of the mind. The body that acts becomes something other than the person it appears to be, producing uncanny doubles and evoking the profoundly uncanny uncertainty as to whether, as philosopher Dylan Trigg puts it, “‘I’ am truly identifiable with my body itself.”[iii] Horror films in the twenty-first century in particular have turned to sleep to exploit its inherent uncanniness and the way it suggests that we are not always in control of who we are and what we do.
If you’ve watched Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), you may well have walked away baffled. I know I did. But in a good way. The film is intriguing enough that it draws you in, makes you think—even if it’s only to ask: “What the hell was that all about?”
The plot follows successful cardiologist Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), who has befriended the son of a patient who died on his operating table. Martin (Barry Keoghan) seems content at first just to meet Steven for coffee and desultory conversation, but it soon transpires that his relationship with the man who operated on his father is more complicated: he wants, as he says, “an eye for an eye.” He wants Steven to sacrifice one of his family members—his wife Anne (Nicole Kidman), daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) or son Bob (Sunny Suljic)—to balance the family member Martin thinks Steven took from him. The characters all speak in monotones and reveal very little of their underlying thought or emotion: the style is detached, and environments, houses, hospitals, cities, fill the frame, representing the attenuation of human motivation. It’s hard to know, in short, why characters do what they do.
In an effort to illuminate Lanthimos’s film, here are three films with which its meaning seems to me interwoven. Thinking through each of these films to Killing of a Sacred Deer sheds light on both.
Dismissed (2017) is an interesting film for anyone who is involved in education. Anyone else might find its central story of a psychopathic teen, Lucas Ward, played chillingly by Dylan Sprouse, a bit flimsy. Would a kid really be driven to rather absurd sadistic machinations and even to murder because his English teacher, David Butler (Kent Osborne), gives him a B+ on his paper? (Admittedly Butler later changes Lucas’s grade to an F after Lucas threatens him and calls him out on the fact that he got his degree from Iowa State rather than an Ivy League university. But still . . . ) Directed by Benjamin Arfmann and written by Brian McAuley, Dismissed is a rather lackluster and contrived entry in the psychopathic stalker subgenre. I personally found it enjoyable, though, and not only because I happened to be watching this story of a student who flips out over a grade during grading period at the end of a semester.
Dismissed has something that you almost never see in film: a scene in which two characters engage in a close reading of a literary text. Some of you may now be having unpleasant flashbacks to your last English class, but stay with me. This really is an interesting scene. (It begins at about 25 minutes into the film.)
The Doll, which was released in December 2017, is the second horror film written and directed by Susannah O’Brien, president of Sahara Vision Productions. O’Brien’s first horror film, Encounter, was released in May 2016, and she has a third film, Hallucinogen, due for release imminently.
The Doll is set in motion when two men, Andy (Anthony Del Negro) and his roommate Chris (Christopher Lenk) order a Russian escort from a distinctly shady website. This brilliant maneuver is supposed to make Andy’s girlfriend Shannon (Isabella Racco) jealous so she’ll come back to him. (The fact that Shannon walked out on Andy because he was making out with two women in their pool doesn’t seem to occur to Andy and Chris, who are immediately revealed as not the smartest tools in the toolbox.) Anyway, the Russian woman knocks at the door and Chris and Andy are suitably impressed by the looks of Natasha, played by the so-called “human Barbie,” Valeria Lukyano. Natasha doesn’t just look like a Barbie, she acts like one too, engaging in strictly minimal communication. And even though they supposedly think she is an actual human, Chris and Andy treat Natasha disconcertingly like a doll. “Where shall we put her?” asks Andy. And they proceed to put her in the attic–over and over. Happily (for this viewer at least), Natasha may not talk much, but she is handy with a knife. The plot thus follows her killing spree (which she engages in for reasons which are entirely obscure), intertwined with the much less interesting drama of Andy and Shannon’s love life.