A group of college friends reunite for a trip to the forest, but encounter a menacing presence in the woods that’s stalking them.
The Ritual is a 2017 horror film directed by David Bruckner and based on a novel of the same name by Adam Nevill. The film stars Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, and Sam Troughton. Originally released in the UK in October 2017, it was widely released on Netflix on February 9, 2018. Though I knew little about the novel other than a passing awareness, I did pick up on some buzz for this film that got me very curious. A group of friends getting lost while hiking in a spooky forest is hardly a new idea for a horror film, but I’m always up for a familiar premise executed well or uniquely. This was something the film looked like it had the potential to deliver upon.
Right off the bat, I really liked context that frames the whole story. It’s not simply a group of four guys on a hike that stumble into trouble. There’s a notable absence: they used to be a group of five. Half a year before the events of their trip, during a night out on the town, their friend Rob (Paul Reid) was murdered during a convenience store robbery. Their trip, a hike in Sarek National Park in Sweden, was Rob’s idea. Luke (Rafe Spall) could have helped his friend but froze at a crucial moment. His inaction haunts him and leaves an unspoken tension among the group. I really liked the way this all set the stage for the story. The violent and upsetting introduction gives the viewer more of an emotional connection to their trip than random happenstance, and Luke’s guilt and involvement makes the setup ripe for conflict to erupt within the group.
After Dom (Sam Troughton) injures his knee, the group decides to try to cut their travel time in half by cutting through a forest instead of walking around it. It is here where things take a turn for the worse. Some of the better haunting visuals of the film take place during this portion, including a mutilated deer handing from a tree and an unsettling wooden effigy in an abandoned cabin. Tensions begin to run high as the group begins to unravel, shaken by a night of inexplicable nightmares and fears that they have lost their way. The group dynamics here really stood out to me as each character reacts differently under duress. Prior to this point I was admittedly having trouble keeping track of who was who. Luke is the only character with any particular depth to him, but each of them have decent characterizing moments that emerge throughout that help to define them.
Something is clearly stalking them in the forest, but for most of the movie we rarely get more than a glimpse of what it could be. There is evidence of human involvement, however, and as the nature of the danger they face slowly gets revealed the story takes a further turn that I really enjoyed. By the end it felt a lot like an H.P. Lovecraft story, a progression I really appreciated. The transition from horror where the characters are lost and stalked in the woods to held captive at the mercy of eldritch people was pretty cleanly executed. The creature itself, which we eventually do get to see in all of its horror, was surprisingly haunting even after most of the mystique had fallen away. It’s one of the best creature designs I’ve seen in a long time.
There’s not much else I can say about The Ritual without giving too much away. It’s a straightforward horror premise executed upon in a really effective way. The cast of characters is not especially deep, but there’s as much substance to each of them that there needs to be. Luke especially has more of an interesting arc than you might expect thanks to the guilt he is still processing. The setting was used particularly well too, capturing the sublime majesty of nature and the fears that come with untamed wilderness. It’s not revolutionary, but it’s a well told, satisfying horror story that doesn’t rely on jump-scares or cheap tricks.