“The Ritual” is frighteningly good

For the first of what I hope are many more movie reviews for the GO! & Express, I will be looking at what is easily one of my favourite Netflix originals, the 2017 horror film The Ritual, directed by David Bruckner and starring Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier and Sam Troughton.

The film, based on a 2011 novel of the same name, follows four friends as they hike through the Swedish countryside in memory of their friend who was murdered in a robbery gone wrong. When one of them becomes injured, they decide to take a short-cut through the forest.

This turns out to be a very bad idea and they are soon forced to take shelter in a conveniently abandoned log cabin. They soon discover that the cabin contains a shrine to some form of ancient pagan god and things go rapidly downhill from there.

At its core, it’s just a story about four guys getting chased by a giant monster. It’s a simple concept and there aren’t any major twists and turns to us distract from the core premise. It’s a tried and tested formula that we’ve all seen plenty of times, but what makes The Ritual work is its presentation.

The film works hard to really sell the fear and isolation that comes from being hunted by a creature you can’t even see, let alone understand. We get lots of shots contrasting the group to the vast emptiness of the forest which are quickly followed by medium and close shots which allow us to see the raw emotions of the characters as they cycle between paranoia, anxiety and fear.

The first quarter starts off nice and slow and for the most part, it’s just a bunch of ordinary people stumbling around in a forest, completely lost and getting increasingly angry with each other. There’s no sign of super natural or even vaguely sinister motives for a while and this gives us plenty of time to get a feel for the characters, what their personalities are and how they interact with each other.

Another point in its favour is that it makes the smart decision to hide its monster for as long as possible. It isn’t until the final 20 minutes that we get a good look at the thing, which really adds to the feeling that the characters are being stalked by some vast unknowable force.

Sadly, no movie is perfect and there are a few relatively minor nitpicks that still bug me, mostly about the final third. This is the place where a lot of these films ultimately fall down since they need to ditch the sense of tension and mystery in order to reach the final climax, and The Ritual is no exception.

I’ll try to avoid spoilers as much as I can but if I’m being honest, there’s no real major plot twist, so you’re not missing much.

In the final act, the characters run into a cult hidden deep in the woods who worship the monster as a god and claim it provides them with eternal life in return for human sacrifices. We get a few glimpses of this, – there’s a room full of stolen hikers’ gear as well as a few ancient muskets mounted on the walls but apart from that, this aspect is never really explored. I would have liked to spend a bit more time with them and learn more such as how they started, why they want to live forever, and even how they keep trapping hikers since, as was established earlier in the film, they live in the middle of a forest that is far from any hiking trail.

As it is, but the film runs right through this part in its desire to finish and all we’re left with is a generic Lovecraftian cult which could have been left out entirely without making any significant change to the plot.

I also wasn’t too keen on the monster design but this is more of a personal preference than an actual problem. It just seemed too much like a movie monster than a Great Old One and I would have liked it to look if the design team had made it look even more weird and otherworldly.

Still these are minor issues, overall and didn’t detract from my enjoyment at all. I’d still highly recommend “The Ritual to anyone interested in good suspenseful horror. It is easily one of the best movies Netflix has put out in recent memory recently.

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