By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Rafe Spall, Sam Troughton and Robert James-Collier
Directed by David Bruckner
Written by Joe Barton
David Bruckner has made such a strong impression with his work in omnibus movies, from THE SIGNAL to SOUTHBOUND, for so long that it’s a bit startling to note that THE RITUAL is his first feature as solo director. On this evidence, the transition was long overdue.
Premiering on Netflix today, THE RITUAL is in a number of ways a traditional terror-in-the-woods opus, which is nonetheless fresh territory for Bruckner (though he was attached for a while to the most recent, ill-fated FRIDAY THE 13TH reboot). Before it gets there, we’re introduced to five longtime, 30something British friends debating vacation destinations in a pub. Their banter has an easy, profane, funny camaraderie that quickly gets us on their side, which makes it all the more shocking when the night takes an unexpected, violent turn. Six months later, a proposed hike up the King’s Trail into the northern Swedish mountains has become a tribute to their fallen pal for Luke (Rafe Spall), Dom (Sam Troughton), Phil (Arsher Ali) and Hutch (Robert James-Collier).
From the first moments in the ominously scenic locations (filmed in Romania), with clouds of mist hovering between the hills, Bruckner makes it clear these guys are out of their element, and it becomes more so when Dom injures his leg and Hutch convinces the others to walk through rather than around the dense forest as a shortcut. Decades of ill-fated similar decisions in horror films should let them know this is a bad idea, and indeed, when night falls and they hole up in a broken-down cabin amidst the woods, one of them quips, “This is clearly the house we get murdered in.” Not exactly right, but as a hanging, butchered elk and strange runic symbols they come across also portend, they’ve ventured into a seriously dangerous area, where something growling and unseen lurks outside their field of view.
Bruckner and screenwriter Joe Barton, adapting a novel by Adam Nevill, take their time leading their quartet into peril, and the unsettling elements they encounter are familiar from other, similar films. What holds the attention throughout THE RITUAL is the mood built by Bruckner and cinematographer Andrew Shulkind, which suggests all kinds of terrible things just beyond the range of the guys’ flashlight beams, and the portrait of four men in dire circumstances, which gives the movie a different emotional emphasis than this subgenre’s frequent focus on young campers. In particular, Luke, the last of the group to grow up and the one most haunted by that post-pub incident, is a compellingly troubled protagonist, and the slow-building panic and fraught interactions between the mates as they realize there’s no escape are the true source of the movie’s tension for the first hour.
Bruckner stages some effective bits of misdirection and surprise during the prologue and thereafter, before the truth behind what’s preying on the quartet is revealed and the horror goes whole hog in the final act. Even as the film becomes more explicit, the director avoids overstatement, adhering to the survivors’ point of view and marshaling some terrific special effects. Kudos are due to the various artists behind them: Keith Thompson, who came up with the genuinely original creature design; the visual-effects teams at Imaginarium Studios (also one of THE RITUAL’s producing entities, co-founded by Andy Serkis) and Nvisible (which did the super-cool critters for GRABBERS); live-action effects supervisor Nick Allder, whose résumé stretches all the way back to Oscar-winning work on the original ALIEN; and physical creature and makeup effects by the dependable Josh and Sierra Russell. Bruckner showcases just enough of their work to both pay off the suspense and anticipation of the previous, more suggestive portions, and bring THE RITUAL to a very satisfyingly frightening conclusion.