It’s no mystery why a dirt-cheap horror indie would obscure the look of its killer creature for most of its runtime. If a smaller movie is careful enough with its location & casting choices, it can pour most of its financial resources into the look of its monstrous threat, leaving an outsized impact through limited means. That tactic is a huge gamble, though. The longer you keep your monsters off-screen, the more pressure there is for them to deliver the goods. After a significant enough wait, an underwhelming creature design can cause an entire picture to fall apart & fade away, only to be remembered vaguely as a disappointment. The recent indie creature feature The Ritual, a British production Netflix picked up at last year’s TIFF, boldly goes all in on obscuring the monster at its center. Staged in the cheapo horror-favorite location of The Woods and featuring Thomas from Downton Abbey (Robert James-Collier) as its most recognizable performer, the movie puts a massive amount of pressure on its mostly off-screen monster to a leave significant impact once it steps into the light. Thankfully, the movie pulls through with a deeply chilling nightmare beast, fully satisfying the demands it put on its own mysterious force of Evil.
Four British bros hike into the forests of Northern Sweden as one of the most bizarrely ill-advised college reunion festivities imaginable. The trip gradually takes on a distinctly black metal-flavored tone of ominous terror as they stray further from hiking trails into thickly wooded wilderness, but their macho sense of comradery leaves little social grace for smartly bailing on the experience. No one would blame them for backing out of their dangerous, over-confident choice recreation, except themselves as they tease each other with questions like “What’s wrong? Are you scared of the woods?” It turns out, of course, that a healthy fear of the woods may have been beneficial on this particular venture, as they become increasingly lost & surrounded by mysterious, menacing forces. Besides the aforementioned creature that patiently hunts them one at a time and the encroaching vestiges of a witchcraft culture who worship the damned beast, the men are also supernaturally tortured by visions of their own worst fears & regrets. Sometimes even more harrowing than the ritualistically arranged animal corpses, the creepy altars, and the flashes of an unfathomable beast appearing in the creases of the trees is the mental invasions of their own guilty, grief-stricken memories. Their doom is entirely inescapable, as it encroaches from the outside and from within.
The Ritual is a debut feature for American director David Bruckner, who has so far cut his teeth helming standout segments of horror anthologies like Southbound & V/H/S. Sticking to the narrative economy demanded by anthology vignettes, he relies on a number of well-worn genre tropes that burden the film with a consistent sense of familiarity. The discovery of abandoned cabins in the woods and ominous pagan symbols (which in themselves suggest a black metal Wicker Man aesthetic) recall other classic lost-in-the-wilderness horrors like The Blair Witch Project. Its story of old friends being tormented by their toxic memories & friendship dynamics (not to mention bloodthirsty monsters) feels like The Descent for British bros, except in the woods instead of a cave. Its individualized visions of internal torment recall films like Event Horizon, except in the woods instead of a spaceship. There’s no doubt that this is a straightforward genre film, even if it pulls its disparate influences from varied extremes within that genre. That familiarity puts just as much strain on the film’s creature design as its decision to delay the monster’s reveal for as long as possible. Everything that distinguishes The Ritual as a modern, indie creature feature is the look, design, and lore around that monster. What’s incredible about the film, then, is that it really pulls off the trick of making that monster count. This is a great creature feature because, and only because, its creature is great. It would have been a forgettable letdown otherwise.