Sitges 2017 Review: ‘The Ritual’ Is The Most Effective Horror Of The Year
David Bruckner understands horror. He understands the language of horror in a way that
very few people working today seem to. He’s had segments in V/H/S, THE SIGNAL, and
SOUTHBOUND, and an argument could be made that his shorts were the strongest in each of these films. Particularly, his short “The Accident,” in SOUTHBOUND remains one of the
strongest pieces of horror filmmaking in recent memory. He has a knack for translating the
abstract nature of fear to a visual medium. Bruckner continues to display this prowess with his first feature-length film, THE RITUAL.
The film centers on a group of friends who take a hiking trip through the wilds of
Northern Sweden, in an act of remembrance to their deceased friend. The friend was caught up in a random act of violence, as a patron of a liquor store at the unfortunate time that it was being robbed. One of the friends, Luke, was in the store with him, and is haunted by guilt at his inability to help his friend. There’s tension among the group, with the trip apparently meant to serve as catharsis and bonding and mourning all rolled into one.
Things start to go wrong almost immediately, as you may guess. One of the men injures
his knee, and declares himself unable to make the rest of the long trek. Eventually, it’s decided on that they’ll take a shortcut through the dense and foreboding woods. And it is baffling, even as I write this, that none of this merits an eye-roll upon viewing. A horror film about people wandering off the path, into the woods, and things go wrong? You can’t describe the premise without describing cliches. Even as you try to describe more, ostensibly you’ll get to “THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, but it’s not found-footage.” Yet somehow, the film manages to be greater than the sum of those parts.
As the gang treks into the woods, they come across an animal’s corpse suspended from
a tree and wonder “What could have done this?” When torrential rain starts up, they make the snap-decision to take shelter in a spooky abandoned cabin. Yet Bruckner weaves some sort of sorcery to make all of this engaging. In fact, the scene that unfolds in the cabin is one of my favorite pieces of horror of the year. It’s going to be that scene, talked about after the film. When they go to the spooky cabin, you know something scary is going to happen. But that doesn’t stop the scene itself from being genuinely haunting, and disorienting.
The horror is (wisely) kept vague, early on. There’s something else in the woods, and it
certainly doesn’t seem friendly. It’s not until the final act that the veil is lifted and we see exactly what’s been terrorizing our men lost in the woods. There was a brief moment where I was concerned, during this portion of the film. The ambiguity of what was hunting them, if they were in fact being hunted, was effective. I was happy that the film seemed content at first to give us the hint of a monster and let our minds race to fill in the blanks. So there was worry, when it began to reveal more than I was expecting. That worry was quickly assuaged, when I actually saw the creature. Thanks to some beautiful design, it remains terrifying, and maybe even ratchets up in the last act. Its design also cleverly contextualizes some of the other imagery in the film.
There’s not much in THE RITUAL that will be new, to horror fans. But every aspect of it
is so well-done, it feels consistently fresh. Through its compelling and natural performances, through the haunting sound design, through the impeccable use of the seemingly endless woods as a setting, it manages to wring dread from every frame. The film is a masterclass on how to effectively use genre tropes. It makes getting lost in the woods scary all over again.