The shadow of The Blair Witch Project certainly looms large over any Horror movie that ventures into the woods. Be it the countless Found Footage capers set inside a dark, treacherous, vegetative coated hell on earth or the other entries in the genre that feature young people lost at nature being dispatched by something gruesome and (mostly) unseen. So doing something different with the setting is a big ask but we’ll settle for just an interesting addition to the pile and while The Ritual is flawed and not exactly original, it boasts something many of its ilk do not…strong characters.
Starting with an unexpected but thoroughly interesting narrative set-up, The Ritual immediately grabs your attention with a ruthless moment of realistic nastiness, which leads onto the plot ahead. Based on the Horror novel by Adam Nevill, the film sees four guys reunite abroad for an ‘at one with nature’ holiday, one takes an uncomfortable slip and they need to take a shortcut through the woods to get to their accommodation, needless to say, you can guess things go a touch iffy for this holidaying quartet from here on in. For a good two thirds of the movie, in spite of familiar trappings, The Ritual is pretty darn impressive.
The atmosphere is excellently realised by the smothering cinematography by Anderw Shulkind and some strong scoring by Ben Lovett but it is the people that are walking through this setting that grips most. Whereas with most Horrors we can find ourselves counting down until the central group are terrorised by something horrible, in the case of The Ritual, the moments with the characters on the hills before we even enter the woodland are most welcome. And once the scares do set in they are psychologically effective, utilising the themes of fight or flight set up in the opening and embracing some sadistically ambiguous imagery to keep the cabin in the woods cliché interesting.
The central cast however, is really what energises proceedings, as they are a laddish group of adult mates that don’t feel exaggerated or irritating but realistic and thus human. Rafe Spall is brilliant as the conflicted and boldly initially disagreeable lead Luke, who comes to assess himself as a result of this challenging ordeal and his afflictive past. Meanwhile (former Coronation Street star) Robert James Collier is excellent, injecting the film with moments of comedy and heaps of personality. While Sam Troughton as Dom and Arsher Ali as Phil round off the gang, with two more characters that feel well realised and have some time for a bit of backstory too via the funny – when necessary – dialogue.
It is a shame then that in paying tribute to the many obvious influences, that director David Bruckner loses his way in a third act that goes some way in diminishing some of the suspense that came before it. Once we discover the story behind what is attacking these guys, the film loses some of its mystique and really goes to show that less was indeed more. It is unfortunate as the central presence that lurks in the oppressive woodlands is very unique in design and were its nature kept partially in the dark, the film would have benefitted much better. As it is this finale inherits many aspects that we have seen a lot of times before in a lot of other similarly themed films and as more is explained, the film loses its violent, suspenseful, grasp on its audiences throat. More so by its fiery conclusion.
This being said, The Ritual is a surprisingly efficient entry in a very crowded genre and even if its influences surpass it and its missteps take it off course a bit, the film has a lot that it does right and a central cast that – for whatever their faults as people – you root on in their attempts to survive what stalks them from behind the trees.
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