What is it about horror movies and the woods? Is it simply the atmosphere they provide, winding through a complicated, confining maze of trees that better lends itself to the suspenseful unknown, or, on a symptomatic level, does it come from a fear for all geographical stretches that have gone unconquered by man – white men, to be more specific, adding an intriguing link between historical context and the genre’s predominantly white protagonists? And for that matter, what is it about the horror genre and rural folks as either chilling omens or full-blown antagonists? Do those who have willfully removed themselves from all signifiers of modernity scare us not necessarily because of the ‘otherness’ they represent and the stereotypes in tow, but perhaps because their ability to sustain themselves amidst untouched environments is itself seen as the ultimate threat against ‘civilization’?
Though in all fairness, perhaps it’s a bit of a nice change to see this milieu and these people depicted not as stereotypes, and not just as uneducated, morally backwards American southerners or English northerners. David Bruckner’s The Ritual, based upon a novel of the same name by Adam Nevill, instead takes us to the forested ranges of northern Sweden, where four tenuously connected college friends go for a hiking trip to honor a slain pal’s memory. Deciding to take a short cut through the forest toward their destination, their already fragile bond goes through the ringer as weird encounters with supernatural forces intensify and test their ability to stick together and remain sane.
The Ritual blends elements of many subgenres to make its nightmare of vaguely Lovecraftian horror an intriguing one. Equal injections of psychological, supernatural and cosmic horror, as well as a few creature feature doses, intertwine to create a flawed, yet fascinatingly odd mixture that keeps us engaged even when the narrative lags behind. Where the story will lead from scene to scene becomes less of a mystery with every terrifying, nearing roar, and though some may sooner find themselves more bored than frightened, others may latch onto the weirdness of it all, in addition to the natural eeriness of the setting as nightmares of the past are juxtaposed with unsettling visions of the future.
Though there are some atmospheric shots and moments where Bruckner can effectively creep out just about any of us, best making use the sonic conflict between paralyzing silence and an occasionally distressing score from Mumford & Sons’s Ben Lovett, rarely does the movie’s technical ability create whole scenes that accomplish the same feeling. Whether it’s the narrative relatively lacking ideas or threadbare characters occupying the mise-en-scène doing the most damage in this regard isn’t immediately clear, but it often feels as though the two weaknesses are working in tandem against Bruckner’s ambitions behind the lens. And though Bruckner’s appropriately intimate, tense direction along with cinematographer Andrew Shulkind’s eye for visual tone and scale are charming enough in their own right, their being let down by genre convention and one-dimensional character drama undermines the resulting impact one protagonist’s arc should have made.
Yes, on its face, The Ritual is exactly the genre concoction as explained above, but at its core is a tale of redemption, particularly for Rafe Spall’s Luke. Having been with his mate Robert when he was brutally murdered, and having frozen in the decisive moment that could have saved Robert’s life, Luke is experiencing a heavy amount of survivor’s guilt, as can been seen in his visions and felt in dialogue conveying a difference of opinion as to whether or not Robert’s death was his fault. Spall acts the part well enough, as do the rest of his colleagues in their respective roles, and his commitment to the character lifts this aspect of the material all the way to the final shot, but you can’t escape the feeling that the final note could have rung even sweeter.
The same could be said about the rest of the viewing experience, and I wonder whether the difference in reaction would have been a change in viewing method. Some films are fine for smaller screen experiences, including some horror features, but as far as the genre goes, most films tend to lend themselves much more effectively to a theatrical setting, something lucky patrons at this past year’s Toronto International Film Festival, as well as some European audiences, would have been able to say. To engender the requisite dread, a film has to properly immerse its audience in its world, especially in order to help the illogical nature of supernatural forces and degrading psychological states feel as natural as possible (though, there must be an equal amount of audience willingness to participate), and watching on a computer screen usually isn’t as consistent a mode.
I feel tempted to give The Ritual the benefit of the doubt not only because of its undeniable technical prowess, but also because I’d like to give it another try in another setting. Granted, seeing it on the big screen is all but impossible at this stage in its existence, but turning on the television late at night – all by my lonesome, preferably – and turning off all of the lights isn’t a terrible route to choose. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be the worst waste of time Netflix has released recently.