On a hiking excursion through Northern Sweden to memorialize their late friend, four college buddies decide to take a shortcut through the woods when one of them sprains a knee. As you can probably guess, this turns out to be a very bad idea as they promptly get lost and stumble across a butchered animal carcass strung up in a tree in addition to other weird markings and symbols. Once they encounter an abandoned cabin with some sort of bizarre shrine in an upstairs room and decide to stay the night, the friends are plunged even further into a nightmare world of which there may be no escape.
After contributing nifty segments to the horror anthologies The Signal, V/H/S, and Southbound, director David Bruckner makes his solo-directing debut with The Ritual, and it’s clear that he has a feel for the nuts and bolts of spooky woods horror. The problem is that if you’re already a horror movie nut, nothing here will come as much of a surprise. By the end, it resembles more of a grab bag of moments from other films than the harrowing freak-out that Bruckner wants to give us. Even the film’s identity seems split between wanting to be a supernatural take on grief, a demonic cult flick or a straight up creature feature, leaving little room for any of these ideas to really flesh out.
Bruckner has corralled a solid cast of British actors to play the quartet, including Rafe Spall as the lead character, Luke, whose intimate involvement with the situation that caused their friend’s death gives him a guilt complex that the forces in the woods use against him. The set-up is so rushed, however, and the relationships between the characters so basically defined that the emotional beats don’t quite land with the force they should. Once the climax hits, you’re hard-pressed to find a reason to care.
The Swedish highlands are majestic and the woods appropriately ominous, locations that Bruckner certainly takes advantage of, and there are some admittedly impressive creature effects. It’s just not enough to shake the feeling of déjà vu that comes with every step deeper into the forest.
Is The Ritual essential viewing?
The Ritual is too basic and familiar to stand out, particularly for seasoned horror fans. There are much more interesting options to choose from in this year’s Midnight Madness slate.