The Netflix original film The Ritual, based on Adam Nevill’s 2011 namesake novel, is a must-watch for connoisseurs of horror. Especially my breed of horror fan, trolling the depths of Netflix like a starving bottom-feeder for quality horror films.
I decided to illustrate how amazing The Ritual is by way of contrast. I will tell you the common folks-lost-in-woods horror tropes that David Bruckner’s film does not resort to. And in fact, breathes new life into.
No spoilers, either.
Meeting Characters Without Cheeseball Grabass
Bruckner establishes his use of economy, seriousness, and respect for his audience’s intelligence within the first five minutes. We get our main character Luke, and his three mates, Phil, Hutch, and Dom, talking about this year’s guys-getaway over a pint. Further, the traumatic event that serves as Luke’s backstory, also occurs at act one’s starting gate.
No corny-ass young couples! What a relief.
In my opinion, more horror script writers should have either all male or all female casts, or to put it in an LGBQT+-friendly way, an all platonic ensemble. This lends films a more serious atmosphere since sex is off the table. More fruitful soil for real terror.
Directors almost always rely on exploiting women with raunchy jokes and having the couples play grab-ass for the first half hour. The cheap characterization makes my unintentional B-movie radar ding.
The Ritual does not.
There Is Not One Single Forced Jump Scare
Thanks to the cinematography, the tension is real.
Shots of stark trees linger, causing the mind to start conjuring things moving between them. They also portray the vastness of the landscapes in an emotionally resonant way. The long frames are refreshing in the found-footage and shaky-first-person saturated sub-genre of lost-in-woods/witchcraft horror.
Bruckner doesn’t rely on quick cuts to disorient the audience. Nor does he rely on background music. The first time we partially see the creature stalking the four gents, the shot lasts around a minute, the tension roiling around in the viewer’s guts.
A sidelong glance into the thin trees, a loud bout of silence. Fingers wrap around one of the trees, and your mind screams “THERE, I SEE SOMETHING–WAIT, WHY AREN’T THE FINGERS MOVING, DID THE FILM FREEZE? DOES THE CREATURE KNOW I ALMOST SEE HIM?” More silence. More stillness. Then the body the fingers belong to sweeps across your view, takings its time.
You feel almost like a voyeur getting caught on its territory, a sensation of terror only the best cosmic horror can illicit.
I was left as unsettled as Luke, the scene’s POV character.
Questions Answered/Monster Seen
Many creature-features and witchcraft films struggle with a balancing act of these three things:
- The audience wants to know the monster’s 5 Ws
- We want everything that gets set up to pay off
- Viewers want to see the monster–we don’t want to dance with shadows, but we also don’t want overexposure
The Blair Witch Project worked because of its originality. People granted them leeway with this balancing act because the tropes and cliches hadn’t been bludgeoned to death yet, necessitating the balance.
You boil Blair Witch down to its essence and you get: vague witchcraft happenings and kids scared about it.
The Ritual begins its third act with a well-executed explanation of all the things, as the kids say.
The witchcraft has been substantive throughout the film. Now you understand the 5 Ws of the creature. The time with it on the screen is also meaningful for Luke’s character arc, which elevates the creature’s visual presence above mere scare-bait.
Other films simply rely on vague creeps. Explaining this without describing the plot is tough, but trust me. The 3-point balance is achieved, leaving the audience satisfied.
Go Watch The Ritual & Perhaps Read The Novel
This isn’t your average horror film. A number of the overused tropes seen in so many movies in the genre-at-large, as well as the sub-genres The Ritual falls into, are reinvigorated here. The result is a damn good movie, and an emotionally wrought experience.