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Woodland Horror Abounds in Netflix’s ‘The Ritual’

Horror, as genres go, is incredibly nuanced and complicated. It’s also incredibly easy to put in a box or dumb down, reducing something complex to simple ideas and metaphors. Despite our enthusiasm for easy to grasp ideology, we should try as hard as possible to avoid this instinct, and keep horror complex, multi-faceted and richly deep.

All that having been said, most of horror is about The Woods.

Not any one particular set of woods, mind. THE Woods. The dark, spooky place we left behind in our rush to modernity, the ever-shrinking space beyond the light of our campfire. Once, a long time ago, we lived there. We’ve chosen a new home, but our old one isn’t empty by a long shot. Scary things still live there, things that we may have been running from when we left, and now that we’re strangers in that dark place, we’re more vulnerable to those things than ever. That fear of the place now beyond our understanding and mastery, that place steeped in our distant past, has been the focus of many horror films, and David Bruckner’s The Ritual is the latest one.

RitualThe film sees a group of friends gathered in Northern Sweden to mourn the passing of one of their circle, a man who was killed in a hold-up several months prior. When one of them falls and hurts his knee, the group elects to get back quicker by cutting through the woods rather than take the safer path they had planned on. This quickly proves to be a mistake, as they find themselves stalked by an unseen presence and plagued by nightmares — especially Luke, who harbors a deep-seated guilt following the death of their friend.

For much of its running time, The Ritual plays to a lot of familiar notes. The unseen thing in the woods remains unseen, while inner tensions begin to erode the group dynamic. Buried or unsaid grudges come to the surface, tempers flare, and panic begins to set in. Personal drama is set against a backdrop of mortal peril, all of it dusted with a layer of Anglo-Saxon iconography. Runes begin to appear on trees, and the more we see of the creature, the more we get a sense of the shape of it: looming, bestial, and bedecked with impressive antlers. It’s like something a high-level DnD druid gets to turn into.

Like a lot of good genre films, The Ritual works on multiple levels. On the surface, it’s about the visceral, primal fear of the thing in the woods that wants to hurt us. On another, deeper level, it’s about survivors’ guilt and the knowledge that our mistakes will stay with us forever. And finally, we have Europe’s “pagan” history coming back to haunt its modern urbanites. The past and all its dark secrets returning to plight the modern world is at the core of a lot of horror, and it’s hard to get more on the nose in that regard than a group of seemingly well-off, urbane Englishmen being menaced by something with overt Anglo-Saxon/Norse trappings. Not only is there something spooky in the woods that wants to eat your face, but it’s something your ancestors probably worshiped — and it finds your lack of faith disturbing.

If the film’s myriad layers don’t appeal to you, there’s at least the lovely photography and tense atmosphere. Man vs environment is something that cinema got a solid handle on quite a while ago, and here you’ll find again lots of long shots with the players suffering in the lower third, as though the environment were literally bearing down on them, as well as establishing shots of misty-laden forests, etc. Again, the film is playing some familiar notes, but at least is playing them well.

The RitualSo it should be a slam dunk, right? Unfortunately, not quite. While the first two thirds are full of tense ambiguity and lurking subtext, the finale pulls out too many stops for its own good. It’s not true (entirely) that the more you see of a monster the less scary it is, but the crystal-clear looks we get at The Ritual’s monster is a pretty cut and dry example of that line of thought. The fact that the creature design itself is wonderfully realized — simple, effective, and conceptually unique — softens this blow, at least.

That previously mentioned juicy subtext also drops some of the “sub” aspect, becoming more overt later on and feeling like a step backwards, an unnecessary spelling out of the pagan past v. secular present vibe that up until previously had been a tasty glaze rather than the main course. The film seems to become more obvious, more direct in its implications, which loses it major points with smartypants who want to show off their critical analysis skills. Finally, in an observation that really has nowhere else to go and needs little elaboration, the fact that the cast are all fairly unsympathetic and haphazardly defined makes it increasingly hard to root for them.

There have been better “in the woods with a scary thing” movies in the last few years, Trevor Juras’ criminally under-seen The Interior perhaps chief among them. But even with that obvious and somewhat overblown finale, The Ritual is a solid little horror flick with atmosphere and effective art direction to spare.

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