The Ritual: Projections, by David Bax
Looking over the notes I took during my screening of The Ritual, I realized they were little more than a list of other movies I was reminded of by David Bruckner’s new horror film. Bruckner’s a solid craftsman and the cast is turning in solid work but The Ritual never amounts to anything but a rundown of references to better movies, both horror and otherwise.
Rafe Spall (Hot Fuzz, The Life of Pi) stars as Luke who, along with three of his uni mates, heads off on a multi-day camping/hiking trip in the Swedish hinterland. This is one of their semi-regular lad’s holidays but with an added significance by virtue of being the first such excursion without the fifth member of their crew, who was killed right in front of Luke’s eyes in a convenience store robbery six months prior. When one of the group, Dom (Sam Troughton), injures his knee on the second day, the de facto leader of the hike, Hutch (Robert James-Collier), decides a shortcut back to the lodge through the forest is the best route. Once among the trees, though, the men find themselves being hunted by something ancient, mysterious and vicious.
Very quickly, the men get lost and, just as quickly, the audience begins to think of The Blair Witch Project. Bruckner does little to discourage the comparison other than some minor tweaks; instead of stick figures, they encounter tree trunk carvings. But many of the beats remain the same. Bruckner is much more subtle, not to mention more effective, when cribbing from another source. He takes a page out of the Jaws handbook when it comes to his monster, keeping it cleverly obscured by trees, flames and other spooky things until the very end.
With the tragedy in the guys’ recent past, The Ritual recalls yet another horror movie, Neil Marshall’s indispensable The Descent. The obvious difference here is that all the characters are men. Where Marshall made the social and psychological interplay of the women in his story the backbone of the entire narrative, Bruckner is content to make a couple nods toward masculine insecurity and get back to the business of name-checking his influences. What could have been a scary version of The Loneliest Planet with no women sputters out thematically before it’s really begun.
That’s all the more disappointing given that Bruckner is clearly inspired by one of the all-time great movies about masculinity, John Boorman’s Deliverance. In fact, you could pretty much map The Ritual’s four main characters onto Deliverance’s one to one. Spall is Jon Voight, confident but always existing psychologically a tad outside the rest of the group. Hutch is Burt Reynolds, the aspiring alpha male. Dom is Ned Beatty, the funny, doughy one who takes the brunt of the punishment. And Phil (Arsher Ali) is Ronny Cox, the nice guy initially just willing to go with the flow.
In the final act, Bruckner attempts to break free of his movie’s forebears by going over the top. Even here, though, he mostly fails to distinguish himself, the exception being a truly weird and unsettling set-piece taking place in a profane mockery of a Christian chapel, complete with damned parishioners. Otherwise, his narrative elevation only made me think of Daniel Stamm’s underrated The Last Exorcism and how much I’d like to watch that again. The Ritual may kill an hour and half of your afternoon without boring you but do yourself a favor and watch any of the movies I’ve mentioned above instead.