2017 has been a very mixed year for horror (so far, anyway) We've had some fairly terrible movies like Rings, The Bye Bye Man and Annabelle: Creation but we've also had some unique, memorable films such as Get Out, It Comes at Night and IT. I'm still holding out for films such as Happy Death Day, Jigsaw and Creep 2 to be great but one film I didn't expect to enjoy was The Ritual. I saw the trailer before my screening of IT and it looked to be just another throwaway horror movie trying to be the next The Blair Witch Project. Thankfully, the film's trailer was just a poor attempt at showing what the film actually is like and shouldn't be used to assess the quality of the movie. The film's premise isn't entirely original, a bunch of friends decide to go hiking and to save time decide to cut through an eerie forest. This premise has been done to death in movies and even though director David Bruckner (V/H/S/) tries to set his film apart from the rest, the final product ends up feeling very cliché. Where the film does shine is with its cast of characters, the four friends on their hiking adventure which takes a sour turn for the worst. Our protagonist Luke (Rafe Spall) is the most interesting, fleshed-out character of the bunch and I was surprised to find out that the first act of the movie is centred around character development which really gave us a chance to learn about and care for these characters.
After witnessing the murder of his friend, Robert (Paul Reid), Luke suffers incredible guilt and feels as if he's responsible for Robert's death as he chose to hide instead of step in and try to protect his friend. Spall does a good job portraying Luke by going the quiet and reserved route for the first half of the movie and while I wouldn't say there were any stand-out performances, everybody involved did well with the material they had and the banter between the friends kept things interesting and was good fun to watch.
One of the things I absolutely loved about this movie was how it looked visually. Director of photography Andrew Shulkind (Southbound) does an incredible job of making the audience feel like they're in the woods with these friends. The incredible overhead shots of the area truly makes the forest feel like its own character which I adored. However, some of the scenes shot at night are hard to make out due to how dark it is at times but during the daytime sequences, the film looks visually stunning.
One of the weaker aspects of the movie is the horror. I'd actually hesitate to even call this movie a horror flick and feel like if it was marketed as a thriller, people would have enjoyed this movie a little more (judging from some of the mixed reception it's received after it's premiere at TIFF and ODEON's Scream Unseen program, which I saw the film at).
Although there's a few unsettling images and scenes scoured throughout, I wouldn't say any of it was that scary. For the majority of the second act, the horror comes from the friends discovering horrific things such as a bear pinned up to a tree with its guts ripped out. Like I said before, not entirely original but still unsettling. When the friends realize they're going to have to find shelter on the first night of their venture into the woods, they stay the night in an abandoned cabin which has strange markings inside, similar to ones they've seen on some of the trees outside. After searching the house for items to start a fire, they discover a strange pagan headless creature in the basement which looks like something ripped directly out of The Wicker Man. After discovering this strange figure, the friends all try to get some sleep but are each haunted by nightmares. Although we get to hear about most of them, the only ones we get to experience are Luke's. All of them reside in the shop where Robert was murdered and each one of these gets progressively more and more disturbing throughout the course of the film.
Without going into spoiler territory, the third act of the movie caught me off guard and really surprised me. As I said before, the trailer made it seem as if this film was just trying to be the next Blair Witch but once the true nature of the film is revealed, I was on the edge of my seat until the credits rolled.
The film has a lot of charm and humour which also surprised me. There's a few moments in the movie during the third act which had myself and the audience in hysterics. Also, it might contain my favourite visual gag of the entire year involving Luke and an old lady. The film takes itself very seriously but knows when to have fun and lighten up the tone a little. This isn't a comedy though so if you're expecting something along the lines of Zombieland or Shaun of the Dead in terms of humour, you're going to be disappointed. The humour is definitely a welcome addition though.
Overall, The Ritual was a very fun time. Although, I wouldn't say it's my favourite horror-thriller movie of the year, it does a great job making you feel lost in the woods with these characters and with a surprise shift in tone during the third act, the movie never feels boring or uninteresting. Good performances, stunning visuals and an entertaining, albeit cliché premise make for a solid directorial feature debut. I'm looking forward to see more from Bruckner in the future and if his previous work is any indication of how versatile he is as a horror filmmaker (he previously worked on the first short in the horror anthology V/H/S/) then we're in for a treat.