I have the problem of being late to the party on many things. With only so many hours in a day, you end up losing out on some projects during their peak. After quite a few years, I’ve finally decided to check out the horror film The Ritual. The 2017 David Bruckner project brought the 2011 novel by Adam Nevill to life and follows a group of friends traveling into the unknown forests of Sweden with some dark consequences. What turns out as a mourning trip through the mountains ends up as probably one of the best horror films I’ve seen in some time, and why I wanted to write up a review on it.
As the film was released back in 2017, I will be tackling spoilers in this review. If you haven’t yet seen it, I highly recommend you check it out before continuing.
The opening is quite different from what I initially expected. The story doesn’t send you directly into the thick of it all, but rather we spend some time with our main cast. While we only get small inclinations of their characters, the story takes a dark turn very early on. A robbery goes wrong and ends up with one of our main cast getting killed in a convenience store. I’ve somehow managed to stay away from spoilers, and it catches you off-guard. We watch Rafe Spall‘s Luke, as he is forced to witness when his friend Rob (Paul Reid) is brutally killed over his wedding ring. He is too scared to help him and ends up living with that regret.
In his honor, he and the rest of their friend group take a trip to Sweden to go hike in the mountains. Kungsleden – also known as the King’s Trail – was their original goal but they end up taking a shortcut through a forest after Dom (Sam Troughton) hurts his knee. This moment is when the actual story of the film kicks off as the forest is where the true horror is lurking, regret. Yes, there is a monster in this story, but what they did to flesh out our characters is by having that opening shock become a narrative throughline for Luke.
It also lends itself for some amazing visuals as the threat they face blends their regret into the first. While at first there are separate areas, seeing elements from the convenience store appear into the forest made for great surreal imagery. We have an actual main threat, which I’ll get to in a bit, but the character arc of standing up to things makes the character interesting to follow, as it also becomes a point of conflict with his friends. They sadly end up mostly as lambs to the slaughter, we still feel for them. There is some well-done character development at play that is subtle but effective for the little time we spend with them.
The film’s length works to its advantage, as it doesn’t overstay its welcome. As soon as we enter the forest, there’s a lot of build-up to the reveal of the creature lurking in the endless forest. One of my favorite moments was as they wander off, you can see it standing in the background before it moves along. Even if they still rely on some classic Western horror tropes with jump scares and red herrings – which still are used for a build-up. Once the shock factor of “something is lurking in the dark” is over, we get a lot of tension building as it tarts playing with their minds. As pointed out, those moments when the real world blends into the past to screw with our protagonist’s head were some of the best.
So, let’s talk about the monster. It might be one of the most effective yet simplest design choices. The body is that of an exaggerated moose or dear, but its head is a human body twisted abnormally. We don’t get that many close-ups of his design, especially not until further into the film, but the use of shadows and the forest make it truly memorable. The fact it is teased as a god and the son of Loki makes it such a curious take on Norse folklore that I wish they expanded upon. We mostly get hints and teases throughout, which is very likely a better choice to keep it vague, but my love for mythology just made me wish they explored it even more.
The way they hinted at the people that lived in this forest was well-done, as they used the buildings and road marks as a way to hint at their existence. They were effective and creepy, but part of me thinks they might’ve been better left out of the story. Yet, it’s also called The Ritual for a reason and you can’t include a god-like entity without any people willing to worship it.
I will say, the ending has some strange moments that take you out of the “horror” aspect of the film. After a heartbreaking yet creepy sequence with Dom, Luke has this strange calm reaction to everything happening. He walks into this creepy room filled with mummies and after they all start coming to life, he just calmly sets them on fire. Creepy old lady creeps up on you? He takes barely a second to just punch her square in the face. I was laughing way louder than I probably should’ve been because it was supposed to be scary.
Surprisingly, those moments didn’t take away from the film’s overall experience, and the film might’ve become one of my new favorite horror films. The atmosphere throughout was really well handled and even with most of the film taking place in a dark forest, everything was lit appropriately and built up a tense atmosphere. The monster design and the build-up to its arrival were some of the best parts of the film. Its use of grief and trauma was also a smart character throughline that adds personal conflict and a resolution beyond just “survival.” It certainly has found a way into the top of my horror list.