There were a lot of things to like about Netflix’s most recent horror release, The Ritual. What could have easily played out as it has in previous lost-hiker-voodoo-forest-horror films (read: The Blair Witch Project), David Bruckner’s Ritual was instead something far more interesting and dynamic. Not bad for his full-length directorial debut.
While I could proceed to review this movie in our mutually agreed-upon and ubiquitous format, I’m not going to do that. Because of the nature of the story—which, though written dynamically (more on that later), is still pretty standard fare—a traditional review doesn’t seem the best way to serve the highlights of the film.
But you know what format is great for serving highlights? A highlights list. So here we go: the best things about The Ritual, in no particular order.
The film opens in the decidedly unspectacular setting of a “pub” somewhere in England (probably) where a bunch of “lads” from “Uni” are gathered to “get pissed” and “have a chat” about where to spend their next “holiday.” But even against this unremarkable backdrop, we get a well-executed, close-up tracking shot of Luke’s crabby face as he delivers a handful of beers from the bar to his boys.
This shot is specifically important because it has to establish a positive connection between the viewers and Luke, who, in the beginning, is really just an asshole. If handled poorly, there wouldn’t be a reason to sympathize with Luke throughout the rest of the film on the basis of his actions (or inactions) in the beginning.
But luckily, the tightness of tracking shot immediately created the intimacy we needed. We were right up in Luke’s face, and he was vulnerable to us. He was also the first thing we saw when the film opened, binding us to him like baby chicks to a mama duck.
The fact that cinematographer Andrew Shulkind effectively accomplished so much just within the opening minute of the film definitely foretold what was to come when dreary London (probably) was traded way up for what is potentially the most dangerously beautiful, delightfully misty-at-all-times scenescape I’ve seen from a film in recent memory. Or, perhaps I just haven’t remembered the others because they weren’t shot as well as The Ritual’s “Northern Sweden” (which I know for a fact was actually Romania).
Expansive views of the mountains and the trees establish us alongside the lads as the tiniest and most insignificant of all beings, ever. We are no match for this place. What business these city boys thought they had parading into the literal wilderness without some sort of guide—spiritual or otherwise—is truly beyond comprehension. What’s worse is that, of course, they go into the forest. (Please, stay the fuck out of the forest, though.)
A forest is a difficult place to shoot a film. Right? I mean, I haven’t made any sort of movie about it or anything, but I would guess that it is, and everything that I’ve heard about other forest films that aren’t The Ritual have substantiated that forests are difficult places in which to shoot a film. So I feel comfortable taking that liberty.
But in The Ritual, the forest isn’t the inconvenience we expect it to be. Rather it’s a circumstance, not dissimilar to the beginning’s London (probably). It’s this beautiful, almost lifelike set piece that distorts and shape-shifts with such well-paced, brilliantly executed fluidity that even if you could escape total immersion, you wouldn’t want to.
The film also plays a lot with realistic dreamscapes, blending Luke’s liquor store trauma with the interwoven foliage of the real-time forest, and that really works, too. Despite the fantastic of the dreamworld, the overlapping realism makes the scenes feel present, clear-headed, and authentic. When dipping into a nightmare pulls the viewer deeper into the film instead of creating separation, that’s a triumph in cinematography.
Shulkind also had to combat the elusiveness of the monster by finding creative ways to frame the banal and make it terrifying. While the monster turns out to be a terrific visual beast to be sure (more on that later), it remains mostly sight unseen for three-quarters of the film. And as we know, discretion in horror is a difficult game.
The scariest part of Freddy Krueger, for instance, is Freddy Krueger—his horrible, mutilated freak face and his ratty striped shirt and his charred hat and his big horrible smile and his long horrible scissor fingers. The monster is the scare. So with a script that spends most of its time only teasing the main attraction, filmmakers are forced to make the nuances count, lest they lose their audience. Shulkind and Bruckner do this in The Ritual by carefully camouflaging the monster into the natural set piece backdrop for long, lingering shots, complete with surprise flicks of last-minute movement and sound cues to complement. It’s expert.
Going into this film, you assume that you pretty much know how it’s going to go. And you’re not necessarily wrong about it, but you also kind of are. And that’s really a good thing, if you think about it.
The Ritual was written by Joe Barton, who adapted it from the eponymous 2011 novel by Adam Nevill. I haven’t read this novel, so I can’t offer anything meaningful about whether or not Barton serviced it. But I can say that even though Barton’s script follows the trajectory of a standard voodoo forest story pretty closely, the details really are interesting.
The backstory that leads the ridiculous, misguided, ill-equipped city boys into the voodoo forest is believable enough. And Luke’s character arc from unabashed, ultimately spineless prick to cigarette-smoking, regretful guy who kind of tries a little bit harder to keep his friends alive is believable enough, too. Right down to the horrible intentional thumb-breaking scene. Ick, am I right?
There were also quite a few pleasant instances when the film sort of read my mind and answered the question that I had just asked. Literally asked aloud, sitting on my couch, like “Okay, so, I get that Hutch had a nightmare and pissed his pants, but are we really not going to address the literal stab wounds that Luke woke up with?” And then, viola. Luke casually pulls down his bloody t-shirt to show off those filthy stab wounds.
What more from writers, if not mind reading, can you really them ask for?
Though I really wanted to end this section that way—because wow, right?—the writing is also dynamic in a variety of other ways worth mentioning. The dialogue, for example, never slips into the always-distracting, all-too-convenient garbage fire that horror dialogue often does, and not having to be bummed out and distracted by that was great.
But most of all, the writing in the last quarter of the film was really something—you know, when everything was unraveling. Luke basically turned into Nicolas Cage in The Wicker Man and started punching women in the face and lighting little gasping skeletons on fire, and I’m really not here to complain about it. I liked it for sure.
He went outside and did some monster-hacking later on, and that was also fun to watch. I guess you could say that he really was pushed to edge…because all of his friends, they were dead.
(Boom! Rescued it, am I right? But also, all of the other elements of the film really wouldn’t exist without the writing either, so there’s that.)
Finally, The Ritual’s monster is fucking great. What. A. Delight. Part horrifying killer creature and part eternal-life-giving, aggressively worshipped forest god, our bold antagonist manages to terrify at most every turn.
The reason that the monster nuance scenes that I mentioned earlier (you might remember) succeed so well cinematically is because of the monster behind the subtleties. He essentially stalks the shit out of the lads, funneling them into his forest village of pagan weirdos who jump at the chance to string Dom to a pole like Jesus Christ so that the monster can masquerade as Dom’s pretty wife Gayle before making him a tree ornament, as is his custom.
Show of hands: how many of you didn’t utter “Oh, sick!” or some other like-minded squeal of delight upon seeing the monster up close for the first time, with his long horrible fingers lovingly cupping Dom’s little baby face? I’d wager that none of you raised your hand because the monster is dope, and we all already decided it anyway. What’s even better is when he picks Dom up like a ragdoll, turns, and we get a wide-angle shot of his entire body. Ick, though!
All in all, The Ritual was really a delight, and I am sincerely so glad that Netflix dropped this unassuming banger straight into our laps right in time for Valentine’s Day. After The Open House sucked and the only good thing about The Cloverfield Paradox was the business decision behind it, The Ritual has been the cleanse we needed to fill us with optimism about the Netflix content still to come this year.