Starring Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton. Directed by David Bruckner.
Sometimes when a film comes out and is original it can initially confuse viewers, and takes time to find it’s feet with a mass audience, and sometimes a film release is easy to enjoy because it’s very familiar. The Ritual is the second of the two, a simple horror film with a simple set up.
Following the brutal murder of one of their friends to which one was a witness, four friends go hiking in the mountains of Sweden in order to honour his memory, only to discover there may be something lurking in the woods.
It’s a classic set up; a tragedy brings friends together, and then things come to the fore. Like a mash up of The Big Chill and The Blair Witch Project, this brings nothing new to the table in terms of storytelling and plotting, but what it does have is some welcome tropes done very well. The four lads: Rafe Spall, Robert James-Collier, Arsher Ali and Sam Troughton are all great in their roles, not given much but doing the best they can with minimal characterisation, they manage to convey a group of people who are friends, have been for years, but have thoroughly different lives.
It’s easy to get behind Luke, Rafe Spall’s central character. Having witnessed the murder of his friend and feeling like he has done nothing to help, his motivation is guided by his sense of guilt, and his shame over not doing more. This driving force works as the guiding theme through the film, he’s lost a friend through inaction, but will not lose more to the same thing. Spall has the same every-man quality that his father Timothy Spall has, he can star in low budget horror films or big blockbusters and gain sympathy for being just an easy screen presence. It’s no wonder he’s really rising through the ranks and is now the headliner of this film; the audience root for him from the off.
Director David Bruckner makes his first mainstream film and does so with confidence and with style. He’s happy to take time building up the sense of dread, and definitely enjoys lingering his shots of the unending forest that form the “short cut” for which our main men are punished for trespassing through. He’s throwing every trope he can at the audience: big forest of trees, ritual killing, a cabin, nightmares, surreal visions, animal like noises and so on, but he has an affection for the horror genre, and is clearly wanting the audience to be tense even before the scream.
For the first two thirds the film is a fairly normal trip into vague Blair Witch style camping in the woods, freaking out and arguing but even in these moments Bruckner shows a flair for surrealism; the constant morphing of the forest into the off-licence from the beginning of the film is a very stylish and unnerving idea, and the sense of growing doubt in everyone’s mind about weather of not Spall’s lead character is a coward or was unable to act is intriguing.
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In the last third, the film unfortunately falls apart. Unlike The Blair Witch Project, which took a delight in it’s unseen monster and ambiguous ending, The Ritual feels the need to explain it away. Now this isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world but the building dread, terror and occasional jumps give way to just bizarre lashings of gore. The spooky ambiguity gives way to plodding explanation, and even though Spall’s charm manages to seep through, and his flair for comedy makes an appearance (punching an old woman in the face nabs a big laugh), it can’t save the film from feeling like it’s lost it’s way.
Had the film kept going with the show don’t tell method of horror this could have a scary camping film that could find an audience that become entranced by it’s mythology and it’s otherworldlyness. Instead, it’s a mostly fun horror ride with a dynamite central performance, well shot, well edited, well directed but lacking in a finale that has true terror. It’s an enjoyable late night shocker, for sure, but ten years down the line it’s unlikely people will be terrified by it. Still, another great Spall performance.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.