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.
It opens with five friends who have maintained their college friendships into adulthood. They’re in a pub planning their next “lads’ night” and a couple of them lament that things have come to such a pass that one of their group wanted to meet over brunch. Some of them have clearly settled more fully into encroaching middle-aged domesticity than others. One of their number, Robert (Paul Reid), who will be called “the best of us” after his death, wants them to go hiking in Sweden, a suggestion that isn’t greeted enthusiastically. However, after Luke (Rafe Spall) and he go into a store to buy alcohol (Rob’s there mostly to try to persuade Luke to buy into his hiking plan), Rob is killed by a junkie who is holding up the store. Luke hides, listen, and does nothing—an act that will reverberate throughout the film. As a result of Rob’s death, the second scene opens in a dense Swedish forest six months later. The four remaining friends—Luke, Hutch (Robert James-Collier), Phil (Arsher Ali), and Dom (Sam Troughton)—are taking the trek Rob wanted them to take in his honor.
This is a film that works primarily because of its direction and its acting. All four principal actors are great—and Rafe Spall in particular does an exceptional job of conveying the damage his cowardice in the liquor store has done. Bruckner is exceptional, though. He knows exactly how to infuse a film with a sense of dread. The forest into which the four rather reluctant hikers plunge is ominous from the beginning, and the camera relentlessly heightens that sense of unease. Most of the time, the camera just gives us the forest itself. Sometimes, it catches something else—in trees, flitting between trees—and these distinctly unnatural images often blend into the natural so we’re not sure what we’re seeing. This uncertainty turns the forest itself into an increasingly malevolent place, even before it becomes manifestly and unambiguously malevolent.
Bruckner’s directing also invokes all kinds of horror films without ever itself being reduced to them. And I have to say that one of the things I loved about The Ritual was that Bruckner himself clearly loves and admires horror film. At first I thought—Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972), obviously. And The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999), especially once the friends encounter a strange symbol carved on a tree. But The Blair Witch Project, like The Ritual, also did a great job of making the forest alone seem terrifying, even before wooden symbols appeared in the trees. And then there’s a whole host of backwoods horror lying behind The Ritual, including some of the best, such as Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974). Indeed, the first sign of something more than trees in the forest is an old junked van—one of the first signs that something is wrong in Texas Chain Saw Massacre and, still more insistently, in the more derivative backwoods horror, Wrong Turn (Rob Schmidt, 2003). Indeed, we know we’re in backwoods horror terrain when, after the first really bad thing happens, one of the characters yells that it was “pagan fucking hillbillies.”
I expect horror films to go downhill in the last third. Even when directors masterfully build suspense, there’s usually something of a letdown when all is revealed. Not so in The Ritual. What is revealed to be at the center of the terror in this film does something a little unexpected and, more importantly, it remains weird and creepy to the end. It doesn’t descend into tedium or gore or a continuous assault by the expected. In fact, once we arrive at what’s really going on in The Ritual, I was intrigued and wanted a bit more development. The last third went too quickly.
The last third also takes something of a turn in the kind of horror genre we’re inhabiting—again, a welcome turn and a chance for Bruckner to evoke a different kind of horror tradition. Definitely we’re in the territory now of The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015) and Kill List (Ben Wheatley 2011). In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and say that Bruckner outdoes Eggers when it comes to desolate, pagan mise-en-scène. I was also, though, strongly reminded of Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957; aka Curse of the Demon). While the central horror is fully revealed, there are some great shots of the trees waving and rustling while everyone waits in anticipation and fear—just as in the classic Night of the Demon (and also in Tourneur’s other classic horror film, 1942’s Cat People).
The only significant flaw I found involved attempts to link the external horrors of The Ritual with the characters’ psychology. Whatever is going on in the Swedish forest affects the characters personally. Luke, in particular, has recurring dreams of the moment his friend was killed in the liquor store. But it was unclear to me how these recurring dreams were connected to what was happening in the forest. That I can live with, I guess. It’s part of the uncanniness of the film. It was a bit more bothersome, though, in relation to the other characters because I felt I knew nothing about them. Dom’s wife, Gayle, recurs in his dreams (or hallucinations), but we don’t know enough about Dom (and certainly not about Gayle) to know what’s going on and why.
This is a minor flaw, though, in what is, as I said, the best horror film I’ve seen this year. Obviously there are some good ones coming down the pike (Truth or Dare, Hereditary, A Quiet Place, Annihilation), but I suspect The Ritual will nonetheless end up in my top 5.