'The Ritual': Film Review

The Ritual - STILL 1 - TIFF PUBLICITY - H 2017
Courtesy of TIFF
Familiar ingredients, but finely packaged.

A group of British friends take an ill-advised hiking holiday in the aftermath of personal tragedy in David Bruckner’s Netflix-bound backwoods horror yarn.

Nordic Noir takes a dark detour into pagan folk-horror in The Ritual, a superior B-movie shocker set in the hinterlands of northern Sweden. Based on a prize-winning 2011 novel by British author Adam Nevill, this holiday-from-hell yarn was shot in Romania by American director David Bruckner, graduating to full-length features after several well-regarded contributions to horror anthologies. London-based Imaginarium Studios, co-founded by Andy Serkis, developed and produced the project with backing from Entertainment One.

Brazenly riffing on vintage backwoods horror classics including Deliverance, The Evil Dead and The Blair Witch Project, Bruckner’s Scandi spookfest mostly relies on familiar plot twists and routine shocks. But it still boasts some superior psycho-thriller touches, plus a capable young cast led by Rafe Spall (Prometheus) and Robert James-Collier (Downton Abbey). Having world-premiered in Toronto’s Midnight Madness section last month, where Netflix paid a reported $4.75 million for worldwide rights excluding the U.K., The Ritual has just opened theatrically in Britain to broadly positive reviews.

The spark of the story is a banal social gathering overshadowed by random violence. A group of British men, former college friends now 30-ish in age, meet to plan a rare holiday together. But the evening ends in horror when Robert (Paul Reid) is murdered in a liquor store robbery while Luke (Spall) cowers in the shadows, too scared to intervene. Six months later, the four survivors assemble in the remote Swedish highlands, glumly honoring Robert’s last request by setting up a makeshift shrine in his memory. Unspoken tensions hang in the air as Luke still feels gnawing shame and blame for his friend’s death, a sentiment secretly shared by others in the group.

Setting off on the long trek back to their lodgings, the ill-equipped quartet are slowed by a minor injury. Alpha-male team leader Hutch (James-Collier) proposes taking a short cut through an uncharted patch of ancient forest far removed from civilization or cellphone signals. What could possibly go wrong? The gutted body of an elk impaled high in a tree serves as a clear warning sign, but the increasingly desperate hikers press on anyway, spending the night in a derelict cabin full of ominous occult symbols and creepy pagan artifacts. All suffer vivid nightmares that are portents of the carnage to come involving Norse mythology, human sacrifice and ancient godlike beasts.

Terse and testosterone-heavy, The Ritual wins no prizes for narrative originality. The main characters are sketchy and somewhat interchangeable, the dialogue lacks humor or depth and the decision to cut the Viking black metal soundtrack from Nevill’s novel is a disappointing dilution. When finally revealed, the shape-shifting beast at the heart of the story is an effective piece of digital design work, but its arrival signals a belated shift away from guilt-driven psycho-horror to old-school creature feature that some may find jarring.

That said, The Ritual still has a pleasingly stylish and classy feel overall. With Romania’s misty mountain forests standing in for Sweden, the crepuscular color palette and maze-like woods form a strong visual canvas. Spall’s haunted performance transcends the low horizons of most genre movies while Luke’s recurring flashbacks to Robert’s death lend the drama an extra layer of hallucinatory, uncanny, dreamlike ambience. Somewhere in the murky depths of this modestly gripping thriller lurks a more interesting film about real-life monsters, the kind that prey on human minds not human flesh.

Production companies: Imaganarium, Entertainment One
Cast: Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton, Paul Reid
Director: David Bruckner
Screenwriter: Joe Barton, based on the novel by Adam Nevill
Producers: Jonathan Cavendish, Richard Holmes
Executive producers: Xavier Marchand, Andy Serkis, Will Tennant, Phil Robertson
Cinematographer: Andrew Shulkind
Editor: Mark Towns
Music: Ben Lovett

94 minutes