‘The Ritual’ is another of those horror movies where a group of guys go out to the woods and creepy things happen to them within the winding branches. Thankfully, it’s a pretty good one. The film toys with trauma as horror and teases into intriguingly Lovecraftian places. Even though much of the movie has been done before, it’s generally executed with the love and care of a genuine horror fan excited to have access to all the toys he wants.
That director making his feature debut is David Bruckner, who previously contributed impressive shorts to anthology films like the brilliant ‘Amateur Night’ in ‘V/H/S’. His story is about four men who go on a hiking trip to Sweden to commemorate the memory of a departed friend. Things are complicated by the fact that the protagonist (Rafe Spall) was semi-responsible for that friend’s death after he was unable to fight when they were caught in a liquor store robbery and saw his buddy slashed to the ground. Now he’s dealing with nightmares related to that trauma, and the others have an understandable distrust of him. When the gang decide to take an ill-advised shortcut through the woods, they’re forced to stay in an abandoned cabin to avoid the rain. It’s filled with what seem to be cult artifacts and symbols. They all have vivid nightmares and awaken shaken with scars. Believe it or not, the hiking vacation gets worse from there.
The premise is deceptively simple, delivering variations on a variety of horror tropes to make viewers question exactly which genre they’ve found themselves in. Early on, the focus is psychological horror and trauma, with visions of Spall’s lethal mistake popping up in regular distressing intervals. There’s some survival horror when the gang gets lost. The cabin deliberately echoes ‘The Evil Dead’, ‘The Blair Witch Project’ and all the ripoffs of both. Bruckner directs with style and confidence, infusing every frame with at least suspense or dread. The actors (especially Spall) all commit with more intensity and depth than is common in the genre. Tension mounts masterfully, and when the film finally settles into occult and monster territory, it’s almost a little disappointing.
That’s not to say that ‘The Ritual’ isn’t still a brilliantly crafted bit of scare tactics. However, the promise of the movie dwindles slightly once it turns into a monster/cult romp. The monster is ingeniously designed to be uncanny in a Lovecraftian way. The scares and gore hit with impact. The movie has some brilliant sequences. At the same time, the more ‘The Ritual’ narrows in on a focus, the less intriguing it feels. Still, at a trim and intense 80 minutes, the flick delivers all its devilish goods with style and intensity. If nothing else, David Bruckner proves that he has chops and is a horror director to watch as his budgets and ambitions increase. For anyone looking to take another ill-advised trip into some ghastly woods, ‘The Ritual’ will do just fine.