A good horror movie can be an exhilarating experience—especially when it features a cast of unknowns. I’ve always preferred low-budget horror films with unrecognizable actors because it helps draw me into the fictional hell about to be unleashed. The fear factor gets notched up when the guy or girl getting maliciously mauled or hellaciously hacked isn’t a known quantity. Simply put: It’s more fun watching strangers suffer, cinematically speaking.
The concept of “suspension of disbelief” is already a difficult proposition when dealing with ancient evils and shadowy spirits, which is a key component in the new Netflix original scare-fest “The Ritual.” The film shares a lot in common with scary-movie classics, like “The Blair Witch Project” and “The Descent.” It doesn’t feel wholly original, but it manages to evoke a lot of terror on a heavily borrowed premise.
Four friends head into the Swedish mountains for a hiking adventure to honor their fallen friend, Rob, who died rather horribly while trying to buy some liquor. Luke (Rafe Spall) has had to deal with the horrible PTSD aftermath of watching his friend get butchered while he sat back and did nothing. Six months later he’s still dealing with brutal flashbacks and guilt of not being able to save his best friend. What better way to deal with the crushing brutality of existence than heading into the dense Swedish wilderness?
Things begin to sour pretty quickly. Dom (Robert James-Collier) injures his knee, and slows down their progress. Hutch (Arsher Ali) decides the best thing to do is … wait for it … take a shortcut. Because we all know the best thing to do in a perilous situation in a scary location is to get off the beaten path and take chances in the dark, foreboding unknown.
Surprisingly, it doesn’t go well.
There’s something wicked in the woods. The four friends begin to encounter a shitstorm of horror warning signs: freakish visions and nightmares, creepy symbols carved into trees, dead animals hanging from branches, and a spooky cabin, filled with a weird wooden antler handed effigy and a dodgy AirBnB rating. Each of them end up being touched in strange and uncomfortable ways. Will the four friends be able to escape the strange forest and discover the truth behind what lurks in the shadows tormenting them? Or will they end up a pile of excrement?
There’s a bit of a familiar pattern to “The Ritual,” which relies heavily on heaping helpings of abnormal moments that confuse and frighten its main characters, as well as the audience. It is like a jazz composition where I’m told the focus is what is not happening rather than what is. Fortunately, Director David Bruckner doesn’t rely solely on smoke and mirrors. He actually delivers an insanely awesome third act, which justifies all the craziness that comes before.
My problem with most modern horror films is how reliant they’ve become on jump scares and cheap theatrics. “The Ritual” piles on a lot of showy theatrics early on, but the last 20 minutes delivers awesome explanations and one of the coolest onscreen creatures I’ve ever seen. It’s so nice to see a scary movie that delivers an iconic monster. For many years it felt like movie monsters were ignored in favor of more nebulous, shadowy ghost-type apparitions; a trend of “less is more” pushing a tired old lie of leaving it to the audience’s imagination is a far scarier proposition than showing something terrifying. Nope. It’s much scarier to actually see the horrifying creature hunting down people in the spooky woods, which is why the last act of “The Ritual” is so superior to a movie like “The Blair Witch Project.”
“The Ritual” is a highly entertaining scary movie with great characters, creepy locations and payoff, payoff, payoff!
It’s funny comparing “The Ritual” to Netflix’s other high-profile feature release, “The God Particle.” One relies only on smoke and mirrors to constantly shift the tone and never manage to feel all too claustrophobic or frightening. “The Ritual” manages to take some traditional scary movie tropes and deliver something truly chilling.