A creepy cabin in some lonely woods. A small cast. A mysterious monster that stalks them. Most of us film fans have seen this movie many, many times. Such a broad outline has spawned hundreds of horror films over the years. Some are good, some are awful, and most are just mediocre. In that, these horror films are like every other film that features well-worn tropes. One can’t expect too much originality, which makes it all the better when something new is to be found.
The Ritual, from screenwriter Joe Barton and director David Bruckner, is one of an endless litany of horror films that recycle old ideas into decent entertainment. In this film, four old friends from the UK get together for a three-day hiking trip in northern Sweden. They are Luke (Rafe Spall), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), Phil (Arsher Ali), and Dom (Sam Troughton). They are on the trip to honor a fifth member of the group, Rob (Paul Reid), who was killed six months earlier by robbers in a convenience store. Had Rob not died, the group probably would have gone to Las Vegas or somewhere else relentlessly irresponsible, but with his death, the somber and sublime sites of nature seemed more appropriate.
Their destination is Sarek National Park, and if the pictures on its Wikipedia page are any indication, they chose well…except for the fact a real nasty monster lives there.
While on the second day of their hike, Dom takes a bad misstep on the trail and twists his knee. A quick glance at a map shows that if the group goes off trail and heads straight southwest through some woods, they will get back to their lodge a day early. Such is the reasoning that leads to trouble in films like this.
The shortcut through the woods turns out to be anything but, and instead of relaxing by a cozy fireplace in the lodge that evening, the group find themselves in one of the creepiest cabins I’ve ever seen in one of these flicks. Bravo to the production crew.
What makes the cabin creepy, besides it being old and abandoned, is an effigy — an idol of some sort — in a room on the second floor. It’s a mud and sticks representation of a headless torso. Instead of hands, it’s outstretched arms end in antlers. It’s very pagan and creepy, and points to some strange goings on in this isolated part of the country.
The group stays in the cabin overnight, and are plagued by horrible dreams, all four of them waking in strange circumstances. It’s a great conclusion to what had been a good introductory act. Now the four know that they have chosen poorly in taking the route through the woods. No more rugged than the trail they had been following, it now appears there was a reason the trail made a wide sweep around the woods.
It isn’t long after this that the monster makes its appearance, and begins the task of winnowing down the cast in dramatic and frightening fashion. No surprise, there. Bruckner and company do a decent job of keeping the threat in the woods vague, but not so vague that viewers won’t pick up on the fact there’s a monster out in the woods. Even so, there is a large amount of mystery surrounding it. The contents of the old cabin point to some old-time religion, and this film does take place in the land of Norse mythology. It could also be witchcraft. Or, it could be neither of those. Perhaps the group is being stalked by the Swedish equivalent of Sasquatch.
The creature’s origins and full body are revealed in the final act, and it’s pretty neat. Barton came up with a fairly convincing origin that works right into the twists and turns of the final act, and the effects team worked up something quite nasty. Bruckner, for his part, was wise in keeping the monster hidden as long as he did, even if it does look good. The small glimpses we get of the creature paint a confusing picture, with body parts seemingly in the wrong place. It has pieces of anatomy with which we are familiar, but placed in such a way and then withdrawn so quickly from view that it doesn’t make sense. There’s cognitive dissonance that makes viewer and onscreen character alike step back and wonder what they just saw. It works quite well.
The cast, which I have barely mentioned by this point, were uniformly decent. They did their jobs like professionals. There just wasn’t anything about them that made them stand out. But their performances trace the overall quality of the film. This isn’t some cheap flick whipped together to make a quick buck. Unlike so many other creepy woods horror flicks, there aren’t any vapid youngsters running around making woo-hoo noises. This is a film that is restrained in all the right places and tense where called for. It would have been out of place to throw in a cast and characterizations that would have been more at home in Cabin Fever, say, or Zombeavers.
The Ritual relies heavily on its audience’s familiarity with films like this, and Bruckner takes advantage of that. When the original contributions to the tropes appear, they are all the more unexpected. The Ritual is a good horror film.