Minor Spoilers ahead
Like most things in the modern world the woods have lost their mystery. They used to represent mystical realities both good and bad. Sacred groves where pagan people met the gods. The trees were living knowing things. Entities that could be transgressed or appeased. The fair folk might snatch up your children or bestow unexpected blessings if you went wandering in the sea of trees.
Most “enlightened” westerners would claim that science and technology have basically eliminated all this from our experience. It’s easy to see why someone might think the trees were alive at night by the light of a fire or a candle. The unsteady flicker of a non electric light can still give us cause to wonder if our world is haunted. It’s worse than normal darkness in a way because the eye adjusts to that. But a candle can do to the eye what the sea does to our legs. Unsteady them.
But it was more than technology that defeated the tyranny of the superstitious forest. In fact the very essence of civilization has been built around avoiding the forest. When Jesus said
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.”
this is almost exactly what he is talking about. The just society is not one of nature rather one that has appropriate boundaries with the natural world.
Whenever the Tanakh or the writings of the apostles reference the future state, the final eschatological shalom where God dwells among his people, it is in a city. This seems very odd to many Christians today because in a strange twist of faith the rural Western world has become prodigiously Christian. The city is where the leftists are and the country is where us superstitious bumpkins reside stockpiling our guns and writing science textbooks that don’t reference Darwin.
And so the fear of the forest has come back in a way, at least to the progressives. Because anybody who has gone camping knows that flashlights don’t really make the trees seem less alive than firelight. And for progressives wrapped up in an urban cocoon of avocado toast and Netflix the place outside the cities is starting to become even more alien than it was when haunted by trolls and wolves.
That’s what makes The Ritual a powerful film. It is essentially a forest based horror story. Sort of like a supernatural Nordic version of Deliverance. But with much less sodomy; I.e. no sodomy.
The film begins with a group of friends leaving a pub and two of them enter a liquor store which is being robbed. One of the friends is beat to death. Half a year later the surviving 4 men have embarked on a hike in Sweden, literally the land of forest trolls, in order to perform a ritual of remembrance for their fallen friend. I believe this is the ritual the title refers to. From the trailer I suspected it was some arcane human sacrifice to Thor being practiced by Neo-pagan Asatru. But no it seems to be the hike itself culminating in them setting some items of remembrance on a rock, lighting some candles, having a drink, and singing a song to their fallen comrade.
Their good bye being said and their ritual now done the 4 begin the journey home. But one of the friends falls and badly injuries himself. This basically determines the rest of the film. Instead of going the normal way they decide the shortest path is through the woods. After all their Friend needs medical attention.
The essence of much modern horror has to do with being isolated from the creature comforts of the modern world. This is one reason that many contemporary horror films are period pieces. The prevalence of cell phones, but especially smart phones, removes much of the danger faced by characters in a horror film from past decades. And so one of the most important tropes of a horror or thriller set in present day is the blocking or removing of the cell phone. In this film it’s quite simple. They tell us they’re getting no reception. If they had reception they would simply call for help.
That’s almost always the first sign that bad things are ahead. And some really bad things are ahead of these four friends. Not long after they head into the woods creepy things start to happen. A freshly disembowled elk is splayed high in a tree. They comically discuss whether or not bears do that (they obviously don’t) but nobody can “google it” so they aren’t sure. Maybe it’s not that weird, they think. The viewer knows better. Here there be monsters.
Each progressive step brings more tension and uncertainty. The woods become to them simultaneously the ocean from Jaws and a haunted house. They are being stalked by something, but it’s much more insidious than a shark requiring a bigger boat. Without revealing too much this part of the film is very good. In fact the first 2/3s of the film is excellent. Sort of like the original Blair Witch sans the running screaming hand held camera. The scares here are not cheap. A sense of dread fills the viewer like sands in an hour glad. ( or The journey into this forest is like an onion. Each layer brings more tears. I have a tendency to use too many metaphors )
The Third Act is the Toughest
Almost every horror film, even the absolute best examples of the genre, falters in the third act. Good horror films build so much tension for the first 2 acts that 1 of 2 things usually happen in the finale. Either the audience has grown a bit numb and they aren’t able to be scared anymore. Or the climatic turn simply doesn’t live up to the build up. Even masterpieces like The Exorcist suffer from this problem to a degree. But one of the worst examples was Ti West’s House of the Devil. A really great film but when the devil shows up it’s underwhelming. Not bad, just underwhelming.
The ritual’s finale has this problem in spades. The 3rd act almost feels like a different film. And it’s not bad, but the tension is gone. The monster reveal is one of the hardest tricks in cinema. What you can’t see is a lot scarier than what you do see. The lesson Hitchcock taught us over and over. And when you finally see the monster often times it’s a guy in a rubber suit. Nothing like a cold reality shower to wash away your heeby jeebies.
That being said the monster in this film is actually pretty great. In fact it might be the best big screen monster since Giger. It feels like a Wendigo was redesigned by Lovecraft. So the production design can’t be blamed for the less impactful 3rd act. This is probably a case where the viewer simply has been turned numb by the intensity and doesn’t have much emotion left to give the rest of the film.
Just to be clear the third act is not bad. It just does not maintain the tension. This is a good film. If you’re a horror fan it’s worth checking out. If you’re a fantasy fan also probably worth a view. And it’s a Netflix original so already readily available to most people. Apparently they want to become known as THE source for horror. Some one will eventually write a book about the early 21st century battle over horror between Blumhouse and Netflix. And an epic battle it will be.
There are some profound themes here. The liquor store robbery gets revisited constantly in increasingly visceral ways. The survivor struggling with intense guilt and Shame for not doing anything. And also our fear of a return to primitivism. That theme is going to become more and more common in fiction generally as technology becomes more entrenched in our lives.
Also the performances are all very good. There were no weak links. But the standout is probably Rob James-Collier of Downton Abbey fame. He showed remarkable versatility on that show and with this film proves that he has what it takes to go beyond TV.
I give it an 8/10