“If you go down to the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise, if you go down to the woods today you’d better go in disguise!” The lyrics for Teddy Bear’s Picnic contain some solid pieces of advice – ones that almost no character in a horror movie ever takes to heart. In David Bruckner’s horror film, The Ritual there may not be teddy bears playing hide-and-seek, or eating marmalade sandwiches, but there are certainly some surprises in-store for anyone who dares to go hiking in these particular woods.
The movie follows the hiking adventures of four friends; Phil (Arsher Ali), Dom (Sam Troughton), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), and Luke (Rafe Spall); they have decided on a hike through the wilds of northern Sweden to honor their fallen friend Rob (Paul Reid) – he was killed during a convenience store robbery six months earlier – because this was the group vacation Rob had wanted before being brutally slain. We get the usual banter among friends – with a little break when they build a rock cairn in honor of their fallen friend – but when Dom twists his knee, the group decides to take a shortcut through the nearby forest.
A small group of characters lost in the woods with “something” hunting them is certainly a common enough trope of the horror genre – Evil Dead, The Blair Witch Project, Wrong Turn, to name a few – but what is done with said trope is what makes or breaks a horror film. In The Ritual — based on the book by Adam Nevill – director David Bruckner has our protagonists stumble across a gutted elk, which had been bizarrely mounted up in the trees. Later, the group comes across an old “cabin in the woods,” which they choose to enter because the weather started to get a little too disagreeable. It’s at this point that it becomes clear that none of these guys have ever seen a horror movie before or else they’d have bypassed the cabin stating, “Being wet is better than being murdered in our sleep.” But these yahoos enter the cabin – which is also surrounded by pagan runes – and inside they discover a headless effigy with antlers for hands.
What Bruckner adds to his film – making it standout from its brethren – is the psychological element; as in this case, the “creature” is able to get into each person’s head and see their pain. In the opening prologue we see Luke’s inaction during the robbery – which led to Rob’s death – and this has caused a little rift amongst the guys; the guilt of Luke’s inaction hangs over the entire group, and it becomes clear that his friends may also blame him for Rob’s untimely end. And what exactly does all that have to do with a monster hunting the group through a seemingly endless forest? Well this isn’t your typical “monster in the woods” story; soon, our heroes find themselves not only dealing with a supernatural force stalking them, but the people who worship it as well, and when we learn what the “ritual” is, it all becomes horrifyingly clear.
I won’t say The Ritual is a perfect example of the genre – we do get the standard jump scares and cliché characters who try to rationalize away clearly supernatural events – but Bruckner keeps the tension ratcheted up to eleven for most of the film’s 94 minute running time, and the final act reveal of the creature’s true nature is simply fantastic. You will find a lot of crap horror films on Netflix – 2016’s The Forest for example – so it was nice stumbling across this little gem. The Ritual may not have rewritten the horror genre, but it is one I can highly recommend, though I’d avoid watching it if you have any plans on camping this summer.