The Ritual Is A Blair Witch Movie That Isn’t Withholding

The-Ritual-Netflix-February-2018
Four friends decide to take a shortcut through the woods... big mistake. Netflix

The Ritual is what the Blair Witch reboot should have been. It gets as far as it can on suggestion, wisely restraining itself until the suggestion of dark forces at work in the Swedish woods is almost unbearable, then explodes into a chaos of horrors. The Ritual is both the evocative, psychological horror of occult implication and, in some ways, a creature feature, combining tonally separate horror sub-genre trappings into a cohesive whole.

Feeling adrift, having no great conflict, experiencing the soft, tired acceptance of having come out of youth and finding your limits may be a lived reality for aimless 30-somethings, but it’s also one of the more viscerally unpleasant movie conflicts, which even in its best formulations necessarily apply narrative to an experience that only exists in narrative’s absence. The sensation of adriftness doesn’t fit well in a linear, narrative structure, as hard as Lost in Translation might try. The opening of The Ritual, which introduces five 30-something friends, each with their unbearable complaints and dissatisfactions — their wives, their kids, their stumbling careers, envies, their clinging to youth or too forcefully leaving it behind — gives off vibes on that wavelength, like signals from the I Melt With You galaxy. Men of the world, adrift, seeking an adventure where they can find whatever rite of passage they need to feel manly again.

And there is a bit of that in The Ritual, but director David Bruckner, screenwriter Joe Barton and (presumably) source novel author Adam Nevill dodge that particular bullet early as generalized masculine anxiety is boiled down to a single point of violence: a convenience store robbery that leaves one of the friends dead and Luke (Rafe Spall) haunted by his cowardice in the face of a life-or-death moment. In ritual magic, objects like knives, candles and chalices symbolize concepts like will, reason and divinity. A piece of wafer becomes the flesh of a god. The dramatic crux of The Ritual is a familiar crisis, but it condenses meaning and sensation efficiently, which adds to its far greater strengths as a horror movie.

Their arrival in Sweden feels ominous almost immediately, right from the moment the friends perform a quick memorial ritual around a hilltop cairn. Shortly after, Dom (Sam Troughton) hurts his knee and they decide to take a shortcut back to the lodge. The dark woods they enter is half-reminiscent of Pacific Northwest pine forests, half Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Their first warning is hardly ambiguous — a gutted deer, trussed up in a tree — but the forest’s dangers don’t seem to be about them specifically until they spend the night in an abandoned cabin with a Wicker Man-like shrine. Soon, they discover they’re being stalked by something… something very tall.

the-ritual-wicker-man
One character wakes from a nightmare to find himself bowed in supplication before this very creepy shrine. Photo: Netflix

Occult stuff is tricky, because it’s a familiar visual alphabet that the viewer can accept or reject. Either the stick things and runic carvings add to an atmosphere of dread and mystery, or they’re just stick things. The Ritual absolutely nails this aspect. Its creepiness is reminiscent of occult genre bests, including The Blair Witch Project and True Detective, but arguably exceeds them. The world of horror is over-saturated with vaguely Lovecraftian doom, so it’s rare for a new horror movie to effectively convey, rather than just riff, on a sense of overwhelming oppressiveness that crushes the characters under the weight of a violent inevitability.

The Ritual is, of course, not just a single ritual. It’s the sacrificial ritual, the memorial ritual, the ritual of purging yourself of guilt and the ritual of life and death. The characters may experience all-too-familiar crises, they may not even be likable, but who cares if they’re used this effectively? The Ritual tells a familiar story with rare extravagance, folding in plenty of gruesome, B-movie aspects while holding on to just enough character for the horror to pull us in close.

The Ritual will be available for streaming on Netflix Feb. 9.

Join the Discussion