Director: David Bruckner
Cast: Rafe Spall, Robert James-Collier, Arsher Ali, Sam Troughton
Running time: 94 minutes
After their friend is killed during a shop robbery, four college chums embark on a hiking holiday in rural Sweden in his memory. One of them (Spall) cannot escape his guilt, but when things start to go wrong in the wilderness, it becomes apparent that guilt is not the only thing they should be running from.
Wow, what did camping ever do to horror?!
If there are any Hotel promoters reading this (because why the hell wouldn’t they be?), here’s a lesson in advertising. Forget your Trivagos, your Booking.coms, your Thomas Cooks; hand your customers copies of The Blair Witch Project, Long Weekend, and Eden Lake and they’ll come flocking in their masses to get as far away from a tent as possible – just as long as those same customers haven’t also seen 1408, The Shining, or Psycho.
The Ritual is the latest in a long line of horror films to continue mankind’s on-going war with the great outdoors. Adapted from Adam Nevill’s 2011 award-winning novel, the set-up will be all too familiar to horror-literate fans: tragedy befalls a group of everyday fellas who love nothing more than catching up over a few pints, and flirting with the idea of a lad’s holiday to the US. But, of course, that one friend much preferred the idea of the Northern lights to the neon ones, and so in his honour, the group decide to channel their inner Ray Mears and head to the remote hills and forests of Northern Sweden. There’s Hutch (James-Collier), the dominant, but sympathetic unofficial leader of the pack; Dom (Troughton), the snappy, opinionated unhappy camper; Phil (Ali), the quiet, unassuming tag-along; and Luke (Spall), the one who’s burning inner guilt is inevitably utilised as the primary crux of the narrative.
And the concoction of such personalities makes for initial character interactions that are a joy to behold. Joe Barton’s script, which flows so well in the film’s opening third it almost feels ad-lib, oozes authenticity, as the four main players play-off one another with wonderfully humorous effect. There is, at least, some attempt and some decent character fleshing during these moments: a narrative patience rarely synonymous with films of a similar nature that have come before.
But, of course, no camping trip would be complete without the obligatory suggestion of a short cut through uncharted, unmapped woodland. And soon after, all rationale goes out the proverbial window when some cryptic tree carvings lead the group to a wooden cabin: home to some pretty uncanny Wicker Man memorabilia. Sensibly, they decide to stay the night…
From there, it’s not long before the tranquil forest becomes host to the horror. The seemingly endless rows of trees start to look twisted, distorted and menacing, and those cracking twigs we previously thought were just cracking twigs, might not be. And with the unwelcomed arrival of a largely unseen fifth presence, cliché also starts to show its face. Light hearted bantering turns to paranoia; friendships are pushed to their limits; and character archetypes signpost a little too clearly the order in which out helpless hikers will fall prey. Spall does his best to carry the film when it runs into such familiar ground, but even the biggest of his fans will find it hard not to admit that horror might just not be the right fit for him.
Frustratingly, there’s the makings of something truly original here, and the film’s classically Nordic monster is one of the most visually inventive we’ve seen outside of a Del Toro set. But, sadly, the film clings too tightly to convention when it matters most, and delivers a final third that turns a film of sustained enigmatic terror into one unassured of itself, and one that is overwhelmingly underwhelming.
‘They should have gone to Vegas’ – possibly the worst tag-line of this year, which inadvertently leaves a sour taste given the recent events in Nevada. But, if you’re going to the cinema with expectations that The Ritual is going to be anything but ordinary, you should probably go elsewhere.