The Ritual (2017)

Directed by David Bruckner

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Luke (Rafe Spall) and three friends set out on a trek through the Swedish mountains to honor their late friend, Rob, who was killed six months previous in a botched robbery which Luke himself survived and due to which now experiences extreme survivor’s guilt.

When one in the group twists his ankle, they decide to cut through the somewhat unknown (and certainly foreboding) forest only to soon find themselves hunted by something supernatural.

The first sign is what remains of a creature with antlers strung up in the trees and gutted like the meat of a butcher still figuring out the tricks of the trade.  With fresh blood still dripping they reason that whoever did this must still be near, though they remain strangely undeterred, whether due to pride or being lost.  Soon a coming storm will force them to seek refuge in a small shelter with an apparent shrine made to resemble a headless being with antlers for hands.

The group is as disturbed by this as I was, and yet they remain there for the night.  The irrational sides of their being fight with the logical side, and soon the fear will turn them against each other, revealing an ugly side to their characters and to the nature of grief itself.

Thanks to visually creative nightmares we know Luke has been tormented by his friend’s death six months earlier.  A prologue establishes a wonderful mundanity which quickly pulls the rug out from under us as Rob is murdered and Luke watches helplessly, far enough way to do anything but near enough to consider jumping in.

Luke’s own guilt parallels one friend’s belief that Luke is ultimately responsible for what happened, and the fear instilled in them by the forest will bring this all out into the open.  That conflict rises thanks to shared confusion about what kind of supernatural horror is descending upon them, and the movie is at its best as we watch the characters grapple with obvious signs that they’re in danger while struggling to rationalize this evidence.

The effect is like watching ourselves stuck in a horror movie.  The group finds an old wallet with a credit card that expired in 1984.  With it are discarded clothes, and when you combine that with the strange symbols carved everywhere around them it’s hard not to consider that they’re heading down a labyrinth towards their deaths.  Well we know that, and soon they do too.

In many horror movies, like in this year’s Hereditary, we would see these symbols while the characters would be none the wiser.  This creates a sense of doom, and we wait for the characters to fall suddenly into the gorge we know they’re approaching.  In The Ritual the horror, in my mind, is amplified by the characters’ slow, eventual acceptance that the end is near.  It parallels the shocking death in the prologue, as we get a shot of Rob making eye contact after the first of two fatal strikes, offering him time to make hurried sense of his own death.  To me it’s one of the more disturbing aspects to the film and thus an effective trick of the trade.

As The Ritual chugs along we will glimpse more and more of the antler’d demon stalking them in the forest and watch as the group is one-by-one picked off until only Luke remains.  Like with many horror movies, the more we see of the monster/demon/killer the less we fear it.  In this case it is a CGI deer of some sort, certainly horrifying, but like with turning on the lights, after a few moments your eyes begin to adjust, and then it’s no longer so scary, just strange.

Luke will eventually find himself held prisoner at a cult deep in the forest.  He is chosen, it seems, because of his intense, internal pain, to live amongst them, protected from the antler demon so long as he prostrates before it and helps gather human sacrifices, like his friends.

The idea, of course, is that this offers him a form of safety which he, being an accused coward thanks to not intervening when Rob was killed, might consider accepting even as others are killed.  Because Luke needs to confront his own perceived cowardice, whether or not that’s a valid accusation, he will fight back, first against the cult and then against the antler demon.  The conclusion of this sequence will provide Luke with a much-needed victory, but it also strips the film of just about all of its horror appeal.

Okay, so here’s what I would do.

As the movie moves forward we learn more and more about how and why the monster kills people.  We see first that they are strung up in the trees and gutted, and soon we know who is responsible.  By the time the last of the group (save for Luke) is killed, we finally see just how the monster goes about the killing.  In other words we are finally privy to the ritual.  What happens is that the final victim sees his wife walk towards him, only its an apparition, the monster taking the form of someone he loves in order to seduce him before killing him.

I think we should’ve left this character’s death offscreen.  Then and only then do we get a scene where Luke is faced with the same monster, and then we see finally see how the victims are killed.  The monster, or whatever force that may be, presents Luke with an opportunity: either bow before the monster in worship and help gather human sacrifices, or die.

Luke, being as petrified as we’ve seen him throughout the film, will lose his sh*t and bow before the monster, saving his own life.  This is his only chance of survival, but it also tells us that all of his now dead friends were presented with the same opportunity and chose instead to die.  It might be a bit of a leap, but it helps further isolate Luke, even after all his friends are dead, and it seems he can be no more alone than he already is.

Luke would then find himself stuck in the camp of other cult members who have made the same decision, to save their own lives by leading others to their doom.  The horror, at least to me, now has more to do with the corruption of Luke’s soul and the unbearable survivor’s guilt.  He now has a hand in the deaths of other astray hikers, and maybe we see him carving those mysterious symbols on trees and whatnot.

If you still want the rousing finale, then you can have Luke decide to fight back but only months later, after he’s really sold his soul.  Even then, however, a character triumph will be tinged with darkness knowing the irreversible damage Luke has already done.  He may win in the end, as he already does, but it won’t be a moment of success, just a way of staving off the thing he wants most, to die.

This is a f*ckin’ horror movie, so it should be horrifying all the way through.  I’m tired of horror movies scaring the living sh*t out of me for sixty minutes before turning into an underwhelming action movie for the last thirty.  In my half-assed rewrite we avoid showing the demon in its entirety for as long as possible and maybe even the whole way through.  Then we are hopefully made to feel Luke’s fear and thus share in the murkiness of his subsequent state of mind, safe but at what cost.

The movie would then end leaving us feel hopeless and terrified, as horror movies sometimes do.

Up Next: The Rover (2014), Poltergeist (1982), Outside Providence (1999)

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