The Ritual is based on an acclaimed horror novel from British writer Adam Nevill, one of the U.K.’s most consistent genre authors, and the plot is simplicity itself: four thirtysomething men, friends from their university days, go hiking in the wilds of northern Sweden, ostensibly in honor of a fifth member of their group who was killed six months earlier in a convenience store robbery. An attempt at making a shortcut off the marked trails and through a dense forest soon gets the men lost, and as they begin to suffer from frightening dreams and come upon strange artifacts, it’s not long before they realize that something — something quite large — is stalking them as well.
It’s nothing particular original, but The Ritual certainly makes the most out of that genre staple, the getting-lost-in-the-woods plot. Channeling bits from The Blair Witch Project, Larry Fessenden’s Wendigo, Deliverance and others, as well as classic tales like Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo,” it’s a straightforward horror shocker that combines the mystery and awe of the ancient and unknowable with the more contemporary grotesqueness of primitive backwoods dwellers. The forest itself is a formidable presence in the film, which makes the most out of its enigmatic silence and enormous age.
The four men, led by Rafe Spall as Luke, are all in fine form, even if there’s less character development for the other three (played by Arsher Ali, Sam Troughton and Robert James-Collier) than Spall. A lingering tension is established among the quartet because Luke was in the store when Rob was murdered and froze in fear, unable to act and possibly save his friend. Resentment over that comes boiling to the surface, of course, with Spall in particular conveying a real sense of grief, anger and guilt.
An interesting look at the dynamics of male friendship, especially under difficult circumstances, might have emerged to create even more empathy. Instead, the film winds up going for all-out horror, introducing one of the eerier screen monsters we’ve seen in a while and piling on well-worn but still reliable tropes like a secret cult, ancient rituals, caches of mummified corpses and supernatural portents and powers. Spall and the others navigate it all with a decent amount of believability, with one or two of them making sensible choices for the group but sadly another one enacting the inevitable dumb decision that gets them into even worse trouble than they were in.
Director David Bruckner makes his feature debut here after helming segments in anthology films like The Signal, V/H/S and Southbound. Whereas those earlier excursions were largely steeped in a coarser, cruder, more explicitly violent form of horror, he goes for atmosphere this time, keeping his horrors mostly out of sight for much of the movie and relying instead on his setting (Romania stands in beautifully for Sweden), the use of light and shadows and excellent sound design, not to mention the frequently handsome cinematography of Andrew Shulkind.
The Ritual was released theatrically in the U.K. last year (where the names of Nevill and Spall might have brought in some more ticket buyers), but went right to Netflix here in North America. While the streaming service has been piling on the original acquisitions as of late, there’s a danger that some pretty good stuff might simply get lost in the constant deluge of content. The Ritual has not received the kind of promotion that Netflix has provided for other recent and far inferior genre outings like Bright and The Cloverfield Paradox, but it’s efficient, gripping and unsettling horror that is well worth a look.
The Ritual is streaming now on Netflix.