Netflix has enjoyed a stellar October for new horror releases, including the films “Malevolent” and “Hold the Dark” and the TV shows “The Haunting of Hill House” and “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.” It also delivered an excellent horror film back in February with “The Ritual,” which would make for solid Halloween-month viewing if you haven’t seen it yet.
I often lament that the “Blair Witch Project” movies feel incomplete because they only scratch the surface of the mythology of the witch – and we don’t even see it till the third film. (The second film at least does something different with its “Tempest”-style approach of manifestations, but even that doesn’t hold up on repeat viewings.) “The Ritual” is an antidote.
Four British college buddies, now adults, go on a hiking path in Norway as a way to honor their friend who was senselessly killed in a random act of violence. Director David Bruckner and cinematographer Andrew Shulkind revel in the stark mountainside imagery in northern Norway. As beautiful as the scenery is in the abstract, its stark and foreboding nature is emphasized when paired with the malaise of Luke (“Roadies’ “ Rafe Spall), who is haunted by the fact that he hid during the liquor-store holdup that ended with his friend’s murder. We don’t see a “Big Mouth” Shame Wizard floating around, but we do get quite a few flashbacks to the event, which occupies Luke’s mind.
When Hutch (Sam Troughton) twists his ankle, the quartet – also including Phil (Arsher Ali) and Hutch (Robert-James Collier) – decides to take a shortcut through the woods back to their lodge. Here we get shots even more beautiful and foreboding than the mountainside imagery, and “The Ritual” becomes one of those classic films where things gradually get worse, but like a frog boiling in water, the characters are barely aware of it at first.
The script by Joe Barton, working from Adam Nevill’s novel, wonderfully shows the lads’ friendship and peppers in laugh-worthy British-tinged dialogue. For example, when it’s suggested that a creepy shrine in the woods is an offering to the gods, Phil notes that he almost made an offering of “a huge s*** in my pants” when he saw it. He says he’ll give $1,000 to anyone who will spend the night next to the shrine, leading to an interesting thought experiment. (As much as I could use $1,000, that’s a “nope” from me.)
Gradually, things ratchet up – do they ever. There’s something in these woods, and early in the friends’ forest trek, “The Ritual” lingers on rows of trees, asking us to study the gaps to see if we notice a monster lurking on the horizon. Mostly, the film lets the sound design carry the day. But when it does reveal what’s going on in the final act, it’s a great payoff. The creature, designed by Keith Thompson, is unlike anything I’ve seen before, yet exactly like something that would terrorize backwoods where humans rarely roam – and perhaps never should.
“The Ritual” is an excellent offering to the horror gods.