The last time that you saw a good horror flick that tickled your fear of being alone in the deep, dark woods…when was it? What was it you saw? THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT? WRONG TURN? The Jeff Lieberman classic JUST BEFORE DAWN? Or maybe it was one of the early installments of the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise? Well, director DAVID BRUCKNER (V/H/S, SOUTHBOUND) has another one you can add to your “bucket list” with the Netflix Original movie THE RITUAL.
It begins as these things sometimes do…NOT in the woods. On a lads’ night out at their favorite pub, good buddies Luke (RAFE SPALL of HOT FUZZ, THE BIG SHORT and the terrifying “White Christmas” episode of BLACK MIRROR), Phil, (ARSHER ALI of the BBC series THE MISSING), Hutch (ROBERT JAMES-COLLIER of CORONATION STREET and DOWNTON ABBEY), Dom (SAM TROUGHTON of AVP: ALIEN VS. PREDATOR and HEX), and Robert (PAUL REID of BOY EATS GIRL and the series VIKINGS), are dickering over where there next ‘all-lads adventure vacation’ is going to be, with much good-natured ribbing included. It should have been a typical ‘night with the dudes’, with a typical ending. But Robert decides he wants to to stop off at a nearby liquor store for a take-home pint – or fifth – and Luke decides to come with him when none of the other lads will.
Of course, what happens next is one of those wrong place/wrong time deals, which ends in Robert dead and Luke traumatized for life.
Six months afterward, in the mountainous woods of Northern Sweden, the remaining four friends take a hike, in part to keep the tradition alive, and also to honor Robert. When circumstances make it necessary for them to deviate from their map, and take a shortcut through the uncharted woods, as suggested by Hutch, that’s when things quickly start to go to hell.
And just what is it about horror movie characters and abandoned houses? When the weather begins to get a bit too rough out, the men scramble to find shelter in one of the creepiest lodges you’ll see this side of Lovecraft. Remind me NEVER to resort to staying in an obviously fucked-up building like this, regardless of the weather outside. Unlike our ‘heroes’, who spend the night…and soon wind up regretting it VERY much.
On their own, the woods themselves, as beautiful and rugged as they can be in broad daylight, can also hold a sense of foreboding and menace. Director Bruckner makes the most of every opportunity, even before the first find of something horrific enough to make you want to try and call Uber or Lyft to get you THE HELL out of there, and does just what made BLAIR WITCH such a brilliant backwoods classic: exploiting every shadow, every creak and unusual wild animal noise…or maybe things worse than animals.
It soon becomes apparent that what’s tracking them isn’t just a figment of their imagination, and the situation goes from bad to very much fucking worse in fairly short order. And it soon falls to the emotionally crippled Luke to try and get them all out of the ‘Scandicreepynavian’ forest hopefully in one piece. Does that happen? Well, it’s a horror film so either draw your own conclusions, or just watch it yourself to find out.
Looking at the acting first, well, that’s a no-brainer. You have a cast that includes the son of brilliant British character actor TIMOTHY SPALL, as well as the grandson of one of Timothy’s late, great compatriots, PATRICK TROUGHTON, (one of The Doctors and an unforgettable featured role in the original version of THE OMEN.) They definitely have skills, and the other cast members never fall below that level of excellence, so the acting across the board is great.
Though it brings to mind THE DESCENT, but with a sex change and no cave-diving, JOE BARTON’S adaptation from a novel by ADAM NEVILL still explores the relationship dynamic of the four desperate friends in the way that makes this similar situation of isolation and utter madness. When our flight-or-fight reaction buttons get pushed, everyone is going to come at it differently, and your sex doesn’t matter. Not when something big, beastly and bloodthirsty isn’t that far behind you…and it’s gaining.
High-fives all round to the production team, especially cinematographer ANDREW SHULKIND and sound editor BEN MEECHAM. Creatures of the darkness (and I mean more than just night dwellers) aside, the photography and sound design and effects here are meticulous, leaving the entire movie drenched with dread before you ever see the first out-of-place talismans and runes, and the first thing that should have sent them running back in the opposite direction to begin with. I love how every shot is framed so that the group always look miniscule, insignificant by comparison to their environment, always informing us how far over their heads the lads are, trying just to survive not just Mother Nature, but the hidden forces that ‘she’s’ aligned with, and that want to eat their lunch, (or actually eat THEM for lunch).
THE RITUAL itself hearkens back to something even older and primal that what audiences discovered in the original version of THE WICKER MAN, even though it’s never made crystal clear what this ‘ritual’ is for and whom it appeases. But that seems to be the point: traditions that have been handed down from one generation to the next so many times, that people still observe them long after the reasons for doing so have been forgotten.
Netflix has really been ‘bringing it’ lately with the amount and the quality of their horror offerings, and once again, they score a three-and-a-half out of five stars from this reviewer for THE RITUAL.