A group of college friends reunite for a trip to the forest but encounter a menacing presence in the woods that’s stalking them.
I remember watching “The Signal,” a 2007 sci-fi horror-comedy hybrid split into three parts, each written and helmed by a different filmmaker. The pseudo-zombie triptych, while flawed, was memorable for its unexpectedly clever bits, most of them contained within David Bruckner’s segment. The fact that it was made for less than $100K made the vividly-rendered, intensely-paced project that much more impressive. Since then, I have eagerly followed the man’s career, yet – aside from a few mildly diverting projects, such as a contribution to the lo-fi “V/H/S” gore anthology and the ambitious “Twilight Zone”-ish thriller “Southbound” – it seems to have taken him ten years to come up with a proper follow-up.
At the showing I attended, which took place at the Netflix screening room in Hollywood, Bruckner introduced the film himself, referring to it as “masculinity and Norse weirdness.” The former, I got plenty of in a 90-minute visual sausage fest (at least the man’s self-aware); as for the latter, while there was, I believe, one reference to Norse mythology, the film certainly could have used more weirdness and gallows humor. As it stands, it’s neither here nor there: not quite uncanny and subliminally frightening enough to evoke such works as Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy (the first of which, “Annihilation,” has been adapted by Alex Garland and is coming out this month – coincidence?), nor is it goofy and satirical in the vein of Christopher Smith’s 2006 cheeky “Severance.”
A bunch of mates plan a trip somewhere cool, like Amsterdam or Ibiza (pronounced “I-bee-tha”). When Luke (Rafe Spall) goes into a convenience store with one of them, a robbery leads to a tragic murder, and Luke spends the rest of the film haunted by guilt, wondering if he could have done anything to change the outcome of that evening. For whatever reason, six months later, he, along with his friends Phil (Arsher Ali), Hutch (Robert James-Collier) and Dom (Sam Troughton), decide to honor their dead mate’s memory in cold, rural Sweden, of all places. They camp out in the flatland wilderness, exchanging cheeky, very British quips (“One, two, three… Brexit!” they exclaim for a selfie). Due to a minor injury, they take a shortcut back through the deep Swedish woods, where ancient evil lurks.
The ancient evil comes in form of a well-designed monster, which (spoiler alert) Bruckner cleverly doesn’t reveal until the end, first showing us the horror it leaves in its wake – gutted creatures, suspended from tree branches – then slowly providing glimpses of the hooved creature. Odd things happen, such as our hapless heroes ending up in a cabin, where they all awake from intense nightmares in ritualistic poses, one of them praying to a headless wicker man. They proceed deeper and deeper into the woods, until… well, I don’t want to spoil the end, though to be honest, there’s not much to spoil: you get to see the monster in its full glory. The hint to the so-called “twist” lies in the title.
The film could have been so much more. It touches upon ideas of guilt manifesting itself in physical horror, something the film half-assedly explores. The sub-plot is just not well-interweaved into the story, halting any semblance of suspense in a desperate attempt at some sort of resonant ethical subtext. Shame – this could have been a much more enticing, not to mention psychologically-affecting, running thread, than just a ritualistic, sacrifice-seeking monster. The characters are not developed enough, despite giving it their best effort. Rate Spall in the lead is the standout (check him out in the Christmas Special episode of “Black Mirror” to see him at the top of his game). “The Ritual” is stuffed with redundant bits of dialogue, characters stating the obvious, in the vein of: “Something’s not right here.” There’s a LOT of walking through the woods, and though Andrew Shulkind does wonders with his camerawork, creating a pastel-like, foggy and saturated palette, it feels like those pretty images of trees are just filler, not really driving the momentum forward.
There are some nifty moments of suspense interspersed throughout the film. The monster itself is worth the wait… almost. Bruckner knows how to position the camera and has a pretty good grasp at building tension. One just can’t help but wish “The Ritual” had something more otherworldly about it, a shocking development or two, a memorable character – or at least the tongue-in-cheek humor and inventiveness Bruckner displayed in “The Signal.” As it stands, file “The Ritual” – along with “Troll Hunter” and “Dead Snow” – in the “Mediocre Scandinavian Horror” drawer.
Available to stream on Netflix Friday, February 9th