Directed by David Bruckner
Screenplay by Joe Barton
Based upon the novel by Adam Nevill
Cinematography by Andrew Shulkind
Starring Rafe Spall, Robert James-Collier, Arsher Ali, and Sam Troughton
Film Review by Euan Franklin
Before recently, horror cinema was enduring a troubling hiatus – you’d get maybe one decent movie a year, and the rest would be buried among a pile of rubbish. However, this past year has marked a turning point for horror movies. It, especially, has enjoyed one of the biggest box-office openings of all time. You’d have thought a British indie horror with a shoestring budget (a rarity for popular horror movies nowadays) wouldn’t even be able to compete. And you’d be right – but director David Bruckner gives it a damn good try.
After their best mate is murdered in an off-license, four thirty-something uni-mates honour his memory by hiking up the mountains of northern Sweden. Luke (Rafe Spall), being a witness to the murder, still feels guilty for his friend’s death and suspects the others blame him for what happened. They build a memorial on the mountain, and walk back again. Then Hutch (Robert James-Collier), the natural leader, discovers a shorter route through an ominous forest. Through the forest of clichés, symbols have been carved into the trees and animals hang from the branches. They sleep in a run-down cabin and have awful nightmares – largely involving a monster in the woods. They soon lose their way and can’t find their way back. And something is following them.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of The Ritual is its humour. It’s one of the funniest horror movies I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t reach the heights of Shaun of the Dead, but this film approaches a more realistic kind of comedy. The screenwriter Joe Barton has constructed snappy dialogue, full of silly boy banter and metatextual jokes (“this is the house we get murdered in”) that don’t feel forced or cheesy. The humour and general camaraderie makes the characters instantly likeable and, as you relate to them, you come to think you’d do the same in their situation. The film also tackles drama, which, with comedy, is a difficult balance to steady. But Bruckner and Barton keep it stable. Spall is perfectly cast as Luke, and can maintain the character’s personal trauma while also making funny jokes.
The chemistry between the characters, and the inevitable conflict between them, make for an eloquent first half. But then it slips. The psychological draw of the film is abandoned for annoying exposition about the monster in the woods. The outcomes become predictable and the ending falls underwhelmingly flat.
Andrew Shulkland’s cramped cinematography is a redeeming feature of The Ritual, providing Klimtian forest visuals and psychological compositions. The visuals build fear within small movements from far away, barely noticed – creating a greater unease among the characters, similar to Freddie Francis’ work on The Innocents. It’s unfortunate that the psychological conflict disappears after the second half, since this is when the visuals are strongest.
The Ritual is a fun and funny horror movie that feels different from the rest. It shines the most in its humour, which most modern horrors don’t like to engage in. The second half feels vastly underwritten and should’ve pointed its focus on the psychology of the characters rather than the violence of the monster, which becomes less frightening after you finally see it. Even given this, the humour is enough to make it a worthy watch. Just don’t expect too much more.