There’s a reason most modern horror parodies — The Cabin In the Woods, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, Evil Dead 2 — are set in the woods. Just as all lazy horror begins on “a dark and stormy night,” so it is also set amidst some ominous thicket of trees. And some of the lamest horror movies of the past decade have taken place beneath the leaves, from that Blair Witch remake to the exploitative Wrong Turn series to 2016’s forgettable The Forest. But there’s still sap in those trunks, given you’ve got a storyteller who can capture the disorientation and isolation that accompanies whatever it is that’s hiding among the branches.
The Ritual is based on a 2011 novel by Adam Nevill that’s been lauded for that very reason, and director David Bruckner, who proved he can work wonders in claustrophobic spaces with his brilliant V/H/S segment “Amateur Night”, effectively envelops his core quartet in a sprawl of conifers that, with their canopying branches, can’t help but exude a certain kind of lonely despair. From the moment they pass an abandoned, destroyed van on its outskirts and duck beneath the branches, the weight of their folly is felt.
Granted, the narrative doesn’t give us much room for hope. We open on five hard-drinking Brits discussing where they’re hoping to travel for their next group outing. While the majority of them would rather chug their way through whatever region upon which they decide, one, Robert (Paul Reid), suggests they go camping in the Swedish wilderness. Later, when a tragedy befalls him, the group ventures out there as a means of remembrance. Unfortunately, none of them are all that well-equipped to handle the elements. Also, Luke (Rafe Spall) senses a simmering resentment from his friends — Phil (Arsher Ali), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), and Dom (Sam Troughton) — over Robert’s fate, one that Luke knows is not unearned.
After packing up their gear and heading back into town, Dom injures his knee. Hutch decides they should cut through the woods, as it would cut their travel time in half. It’s not the wisest move, but Dom proves himself to be a handful, and the sooner he’s pleased the better. It’s not long before the woods reveal their secrets, from a gutted moose strung up on trees to an abundance of strange carvings in the wood itself. A stop at an abandoned cabin reveals what looks to be an abandoned pagan ritual, and the murky events of a sleepover leave the crew with unexplained wounds, haunting nightmares, and the sight of one of them, naked, bent before a pagan totem. “That’s not something I would do,” he repeats afterwards.
The setup, ensemble, and bottled-up resentment evoke Neil Marshall’s The Descent, while the arboreal frustrations owe something to the original Blair Witch Project, a film that’s often underrated as a document of psychological devolution. Spall, Ali, James-Collier, and Troughton all do a remarkable job of depicting a palpable withering, with the light in their eyes slowly fading as the cut of their wit dulls with every physical and emotional clubbing. As in The Descent, the story’s boogeyman doesn’t truly emerge until the final act, bringing with it an uncanny creature design that, while impressive, nevertheless undercuts the Lovecraftian terror we’re initially led to imagine.
Similarly, it feels that there’s perhaps a few threads missing in terms of what the characters first experienced during that sleepover in the cabin and the ways in which that trauma eventually manifests itself. Phil, in particular, is somehow both underwritten and overserved in terms of development. There’s a seed of a story there that never quite blooms. The same could be said for Dom, whose journey weaves in an odd twist to the mythology that’s likely better explained in prose than on film.
It’s striking, however, the ways in which Bruckner, Nevill, and screenwriter Joe Barton are able to so cleverly reconcile the story’s themes of grief, guilt, and cowardice with the horror at its center. The ending is wholly unexpected and oddly satisfying, though it will likely be polarizing for just those very reasons. But The Ritual is rich, meaty horror that, despite your feelings regarding its twists and turns, offers up a gripping balance of psychological terror and physical revulsion. Your mileage on its monster, though, may vary.