The Ritual attempts to explore the themes of survival and friendship within the context of a supernatural life-and-death situation. While these themes draw you into the movie, their allure is weakened by the movie’s formulaic story development. Overall, The Ritual intrigues with its air of mystery but disappoints with its mediocrity.
The movie opens with tragedy and rituals of remembrance. Four friends: Luke, Hutch, Phil, and Dom (played by Rafe Spall, Robert James-Collier, Arsher Ali, and Sam Troughton respectively) embark on a journey in honor of their friend Robert (played by Paul Reid), who died during an armed robbery. Little did they know that this memorial walk for Robert would turn out to be a death march for most of them.
Their journey to death is a slow one. The movie does a good job of building suspense through the power of suggestion. Something is following the group, but it does not show itself right away.
Luke hears noises and sees a large shadowy figure, but are they just figments of his imagination? These subtle hints give way to bigger and more frightening clues, and some of them foreshadow the gruesome events that occur later in the film.
The unseen presence combined with a well-crafted dark and foreboding atmosphere kept me interested in watching the first half of the movie.
As the movie progresses, however, the suspense dissipates, and the movie becomes highly predictable. When I watched this movie, I got a sense of déjà vu because The Ritual incorporates several common horror film elements. Like other horror movies such as The Blair Witch Project (1999) and The Evil Dead (1981), The Ritual takes place in a spooky forest. This forest is located in northern Sweden. It is isolated, but it is not completely uninhabited.
The unseen presence living in the forest turns out to be a supernatural monster. It is supposedly a descendant of Loki, the trickster god of chaos in Norse mythology.
Like its ancestor, this monster is a shape shifter. It is also capable of messing with the minds of its victims, which is yet another horror movie device found in films such as 1408 (2007) and to an extreme degree in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies.
Even the actions of the four main characters seem similar to those of other horror movie victims. They perform some of the classic horror movie “don’ts” that will ensure they will become monster fodder.
They don’t heed warning signs, such as the horrifying sight of a forest animal gutted open and hung up in the trees. They don’t turn back and get out of the forest even after having nightmares in an abandoned cabin containing strange symbols and a strange headless statue inside of it.
Because of Dom, they don’t follow the map and compass directions and take yet another shortcut that causes them to become even more lost in the forest.
Other Troubling Odds and Ends
Besides seeming like a retread of other horror movies, other aspects of The Ritual bothered me.
The Unfathomable Fate of the Monster Worshippers
As the title of the movie suggests, the monster has worshippers who obey it and perform ritual sacrifices to it. I found some aspects of the relationship between the monster and the worshippers were difficult to understand.
The monster in The Ritual does not kill everyone who ventures into its forest. It goes out of its way to pick out certain people to worship it. If these people agree to worship it, then they get to live beyond the normal lifespan of most people.
This sounds good until you see all of the shriveled up old worshippers stored in a dark room. Why are they kept there? What is their purpose? The movie does not clearly answer these questions.
And then there is the monster’s contradictory behavior toward the worshippers. The worshippers must be important to the monster if it hand selects them and even grants them long life, but then it shows disregard for them after Luke burns down the worshippers’ house. You would think it would try to save the ones who did not perish in the fire, but instead it kills one of them. Maybe it is so paranoid that it believes that they were the ones who set the house on fire, and they must be punished.
Luke’s “Big Shot” Transformation
It is understandable that Luke was affected by his fight with Dom, who calls him a “coward” and openly blames him for Robert’s death. After that fight, it is also plausible that he wants to make amends for hiding instead of helping Robert during the robbery. He tries to overcome the guilt he feels for not trying to save Robert by trying to save the lives of his remaining friends in the forest.
But then he is awkwardly forced into an action hero mold for dramatic effect toward the end of the movie. Luke packs a rifle and shoots one of the worshippers when he won’t get out of the way, and he punches another one unconscious. He also breaks through a burning wall of the worshippers’ house to escape the monster.
Luke’s heroic transformation seems awkward and contrived. Once wimpy, he now becomes reckless and does something pointless. With only one bullet left in the rifle, he shoots at the monster from a distance. Doing this accomplishes nothing. It does not kill the monster, and it does not save the worshipper in the monster’s grasp because she is already dead.
What is worse is that it attracts the attention of the monster. Luke probably could have escaped undetected while the monster was distracted with the dead worshipper, but now it is coming after him. Was Luke purposely provoking it into a fight? This action seems to be the result of foolishness rather than bravery, and it seems to be thrown into the movie so that Luke can have a dramatic (and formulaic) showdown with the monster. To make him seem more heroic, Luke fights it armed only with a large ax that he took from the worshippers’ house.
The Far From Frightening Finale
Here is my spoiler-free take on the ending. I can understand why the movie ended the way that it did. The ordeal in the forest brought out the primal survival instincts of all of the main characters. While the ending may have been appropriate to a certain degree, it was also unintentionally funny. I found myself laughing at the ending, which does not bode well for a movie that is supposed to be scary.
For me, The Ritual is an average horror film with a wonderfully dark atmosphere. Unfortunately, a glaring lack of originality and a laughable ending undermine the suspense and horror that it worked so hard to build at its beginning.