The Ritual is an incredibly effective horror movie for its first seventy minutes, and an absolutely abominable one for its final twenty. I imagine there’s some alternate version of hell where the makers are forced to sit and watch the movie’s last act on an endless loop, their eyes peeled open like Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange, and reflect upon how it all went so horribly wrong.
Based on the 2011 source novel by Adam Nevill, the film follows four longtime friends who get lost in the wilds of Sweden while backpacking and find themselves being preyed upon by an ancient demon of the woods. Readers of the book will recall—and though I’m treading lightly, you might call this a spoiler—the intricate mythology Nevill creates around the demon, and his attempts at deeper themes of disaffected youth. This is after spending the first half of the book laboriously describing the horrors of the backpacking trip, as the friends devolve into paranoia and blame when their supplies and hope start running low. I’ll go no further, except to say that none of the novel works very well.
Director David Bruckner and writer Joe Barton wisely spend the first two-thirds of the movie focused on character and atmosphere, as the bond between the friends breaks down the deeper they become mired in the tangle of woods. A gutted elk is found strung up high in the branches like an omen. Strange symbols have been carved into the trunks of trees. Ominous sounds issue through the leaves. And a fortuitous stop at a dilapidated cabin results in nightmarish hallucinations. The cinematography is suitably lush and gloomy, as the forest closes in on the men. The rain, when it comes, is heavy and claustrophobic. At night, shadows crawl into every corner of the frame, tricking the men’s senses. This is one of the best-looking horror movies I think I’ve seen.
But then, oh! that final act. If Nevill’s book reaches for too much in its later passages, Barton’s screenplay reaches for too little. Characters with no function other than to serve as fodder for the demon are introduced and quickly dispatched. The mythology and description of the demon that Nevill took great care to cultivate are disposed of in exchange for a couple of lines of perfunctory exposition from an otherwise disposable character. And the final minutes involving a chase through the forest feel tacked on and ludicrous. It’s a colossal letdown after all the promising buildup.
The Ritual could have been a great horror film, as opposed to a merely passable one, had Barton and Bruckner had the courage to follow through with some of Nevill’s more lofty ideas. Instead, their nerves seem to fail them and all we’re left with is cliches and the hint of a good idea.