“The Ritual” – Ah, a guys’ weekend. When old friends get together for a weekend of fun and mischief, infinite possibilities exist, but many times they involve a ballgame, a destination city or an outdoor adventure. For five 30-somethings – Luke (Rafe Spall), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), Phil (Arsher Ali), Dom (Sam Troughton), and Robert (Paul Reid) – they ponder these choices (like exploring Amsterdam again) over a few drinks at a local UK pub, but they finally set their collective sights on a weekend hike in Sweden.
Prior to their trip, however, a most unexpected tragedy strikes one of the buddies, but the group pushes forward with their planned journey anyway. Under a melancholy mood and a gloomy Nordic countryside – which does resemble the Scottish Highlands – Dom injures his knee and believes that he tore his meniscus. Rather than continue on their chosen path, they make the unfortunate decision to blaze a shortcut through the woods, and like Hansel and Gretel’s experience, bad things befall our heroes in the mysterious forest.
Director David Bruckner’s picture stages an engaging horror premise – especially with the aforementioned disaster that transpired to one of the men – and chose a creepy setting as well. Sure, the Swedish forest might sport green foliage near the top of dense packs of trees, but the branches below are dead and stick out like countless, two-foot long spikes. With little light reaching the woodsy bed, a lone compass directs them towards a distant open prairie, but the landscape appears eerily similar in any direction. Of course, they also hear…something, a beastly animal of some sort.
“The Ritual” certainly sports a “The Blair Witch Project” (1999) vibe, particularly when the fellas raise tents and camp overnight. Spooky noises and things that go snap, crackle and pop in the middle of the night can be heard just outside their propped-up, fabric shelters, so the film offers some legit scares, but admittedly, even novice horror fans have traveled down this road before.
The script, however, does keep our interest. Sure, the men fall prey to bad decisions, but unlike other similar flicks, they make the best choices based upon the limited information available, while – of course – some ghastly, unknown creature stalks them. Additionally, the unforeseen misfortune in the picture’s first act adds an important layer of tension between the guys which decreases their odds against an unseen antagonist.
Regrettably, the picture falls down when trying to visualize its mysteries. The narrative dances between witchcraft and a physical force, and this back and forth generates confusion, rather than intrigue. Is black magic connected with this hulking presence in some way? Apparently so, but the film’s equation does not quite add up, and therefore, the picture feels like a mishmash of two genres crammed into one film. Imagine a group of protagonists walking into a haunted house, and ghosts terrorize them, and then – for good measure – a litany of zombies also appear on the scene and begin rapping at the front door and windows.
“The Ritual” delves into this head scratching territory, and its identity becomes muddled. Still, Bruckner and writer Joe Barton take some risks, and these gambles do somewhat payoff and provide a hair-raising, outdoor outing for the audience. Just think, Luke, Hutch, Phil, Dom, and Robert could’ve chosen to go party in Amsterdam, and Bruckner would have made “The Hangover-Europe” instead. A horror show for certain, but an unintentional one.