TL;DR
  • Reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project and The Wicker Man but not as unique or impressive as either of those
  • A promising beginning then goes downhill in a nonsensical, messy end
  • The ending is irritating and unsatisfying, raising more questions than it answers and just stopping suddenly
  • Constant sinister atmosphere, but doesn’t make up for lack of scares and very little effective horror
  • Initially strong characters stop developing half-way
  • The banter and chemistry between the four main characters gives the film its own personality and carries it in a strong way for the beginning
  • The horror as an allegory for Rafe Spall’s guilt is initially a good idea, but is done too much and becomes stale

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October is that predictable month where cinema, TV, videogames – everything – will cash in on Halloween. There’s no escaping it – but fortunately if you love some horror then it’s not a time that fills you with dread; you actually find yourself looking forward to it! Not that many of these horrors are actually good; many that come out these days are predictable, cheesy and more funny than scary. Yet every now and then a horror comes out that’s different; one that shakes up the genre and defies the audience’s expectations, breathing fresh life into the genre. Sadly, although it may have seemed that way in the trailer, The Ritual is not one of these films. Rather, it’s one of those lacklustre horrors that will inevitably find themselves in the corner of forgettable horrors on Netflix.

After leaving the pub, having discussed various ideas for their upcoming “lads’ holiday,” a couple of friends go into a shop to buy a few bottles before heading home. It’s here that they accidentally stumble on a robbery, where one friend is murdered, while the other, Luke (Rafe Spall), stays hidden, paralysed by fear. Some time after this the group decide to honour their recently passed friend by doing his holiday of choice – hiking through the wilds of Sweden. On the second day one of them breaks his ankle, causing them to re-plan their route and cut through the dense, thick and imposing forest. Needless to say, as you can imagine with a horror film, this isn’t a good idea, especially when you come across an impaled deer hanging from a tree and a load of ancient runes etched into tree trunks – and their first horrific night at a creepy wooden hut in the middle of the storm is just the beginning of the terror…

So far, so enjoyably creepy and very much reminiscent of horror classics The Blair Witch Project and The Wicker Man (the latter becoming much more obvious in the final act of the film). In fact this film really does feel like it’s two distinct parts – the initial phase, taking up the first two thirds of the film with a strong Blair Witch feel to it, and the final phase, feeling very much like a Wicker Man tribute. If the final section was intended to refresh the film and turn it on its head in an ingenious way, this fails as the two sections seem so different and disjointed it doesn’t flow well and seems like a strange jump; particularly since the end is barely explained, leaving us with much more questions than we should really have.

Still, while the ending may be weak, the beginning by contrast is fairly strong, giving us an enjoyable, solid set up. The bleak murder of their friend is dark and impactful, with Rafe Spall’s portrayal very good as you can see in his face how this event has affected and changed his character. Still it’s not just Spall who carries this film; a large part of the strength of the beginning is due to the chemistry and banter between the four friends, the way they joke and interact with each other remaining enjoyable and, most importantly, believable throughout. This gives the film its own personality and, when they finally get into the forest and come across creepy goings-on (such as a dead deer and an unsettling wooden hut) this stands out as being particularly unnerving, the contrast giving the horror more of an effect. It’s in this hut where things start to change; not just for the characters but for the film itself.

The first night is justifiably strong and creepy, seemingly setting up a fairly scary movie with strong elements of horror – sadly though it just doesn’t seem to go this way. After this point The Ritual begins its slow descent, as the thread unravels and the plot crumbles, leading us to a pretty slow and dull middle, before the unsatisfying ending. Once the horror starts the banter stops and the group start turning on each other – something you’d think would be a strong point. But the arguments are quickly resolved and the characters don’t continue to develop throughout this point, remaining half-developed. Then whenever any deaths happen, as an audience we aren’t as fussed as we should be.

If only the final third brought it all together, but instead it’s a nonsensical finale, attempting some semblance of a reasonable plot, with just an easy line or two in an effort to explain things. Not that everything in a film needs spelling out, sometimes less is more; but when there’s next to nothing, this makes what would be a strength into a weakness. At the end, we still don’t know exactly who the creepy occult are, what the monster is or does, or even necessarily what it looks like – the latter being particularly disappointing since from it’s silhouette it looks like it could have been an interesting monster design, but all we see is a shadow of an oversized moose.

Whilst the sinister and creepy atmosphere is nicely kept up throughout, it’s a shame there wasn’t much horror or actual scares for us to enjoy. It’s seldom scary and just occasionally unsettling at best. At least there are no cheap jump scares; instead there’s just the occasional cut to a different scene with a loud-ish noise that might make some of the more nervous audience members jump slightly. Still I was a fan of how a lot of the horror is an allegory for Luke’s guilt in not intervening in his friend’s murder. Unfortunately this is referenced so often that the constant flashing back to the scene of the crime loses its potency and starts to become tedious.

The Ritual isn’t a bad film per se at all; rather it feels as though all the ingredients are there, but it’s just a missed opportunity. The bunch of friends are all likeable, well-cast and well-acted, their banter carrying the film in the first act nicely. The constant sinister atmosphere is good, but sadly the horror and scares are missing, with the end feeling like such an unsatisfying mess that it eclipses most of what was good in the beginning. So The Ritual won’t be taking the spot for best horror this year – that spot may be reserved for It or Get Out, but let’s wait to see what Jigsaw is like before we declare the winner…

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