"If a shortcut was a shortcut it wouldn’t be a shortcut, it would be a route."
The Blair Witch Project is one of my favorite horror movies of all time. It doesn't matter how many times I see it, I always get fully engrossed. The atmosphere. The tension. The bickering. The paranoia. The lingering shots in the forest. The unexplainable things happening to them. Many horror movies have tackled the "spooky things happen in the woods" trope, but none got their hooks in me like The Blair Witch Project, especially not either of its two sequels. You can never fully recapture the magic of a movie that imprinted on you when you were young, but The Ritual is the closest any film has gotten for me.
Whether it be Blair With or The Descent, group interplay is more important than whatever is out there hunting them. There's one scene that takes place before their excursion into the woods and it's the most important scene in the movie. It lays the groundwork for the group dynamic, something that's crucial to this specific horror sub-genre. We open with a group of five friends hanging out at a pub and planning their next lad’s holiday. As you do. Luke, the main character, is giving off heavy Gary King vibes from Edgar Wright's The World's End. The rest of the crew is growing up and he would rather stay at the pub all night and he's beginning to resent them for maturing. The other four aren't fed up with him by any means, but their patience with his juvenile tendencies is starting to wear thin.
The gang leaves the pub and go for a walk, the other four trying to wear down Luke into going on a hike through the Swedish mountains. Rob seems keen to the idea, but Luke would prefer to get shithoused in Amsterdam. They come across a convenience store and Luke decides he wants to buy a bottle, despite everyone else being tired and wanting to go home because it's already late and they have adult things to do. Rob follows him inside and the two of them inadvertently walk into a robbery. Luke sneaks behind a shelf and Rob, unable to escape, is killed. Luke goes so far as to grab a bottle and contemplate jumping in to save him, but he can't work up the courage to do it and sits there cowering in fear while his friend dies. We go from this scene of Luke looking at his dead friend he was too scared to save to a shot of them camped out on a mountain with four tents and a cross behind them.
It's perfect. All of the heavy lifting is done in one scene to set up how they will react to one another. Before they encounter a single hitch in their hike, there is already turmoil in the group. We don't need days to go by or for anyone to kick a map into the river. None of them will say it, but Luke knows each and every one of them blame him for Rob's death in some capacity. This trip is to honor Rob's memory, and you get the feeling they are keeping this dynamic intact solely out of respect for him. You wouldn't be surprised if the lad's holidays become less and less frequent until eventually they stop happening all together. The hike is difficult, especially for their slightly larger friend, but nothing out of the ordinary. Things are going as well as could be expected and yet they're already giving sideways glances towards Luke and dropping lines about how what happened to Rob never should have happened; lines that could easily be interpreted the wrong way. Then, as if on cue, Tubby twists his ankle and they decide the best course of action is to take a shortcut through the forest.
Don't ever, ever take a shortcut through the forest.
What The Ritual gets right that so many movies in a similar vein get wrong is its atmosphere. A lot of movies like this lean way too heavily on jump scares. You can already picture the scenes in your head: no less than 3 separate occasions where someone (bonus points if it's in first person) looks off into the trees because they heard something and then one of their friends grabs them and screams "DID YOU HEAR THAT?!" while a loud cymbal crash plays over the soundtrack. The Ritual is not those movies. What it excels at is the way it slowly - but not too slowly - builds dread and escalates. The stakes are always raising and the group is always in more danger than they were before. Sure they find spooky things, but what sets it apart from other movies is the way it's shot. The unsung hero of The Ritual is its cinematographer and how he uses the camera to keep you unnerved. This is the third Netflix horror movie I've watched in 2018. The Open House was the drizzling shits and The Cloverfield Paradox was insanely bad but somehow also incredibly watchable. When I turned on this Netflix movie about a group of guys camping where they shouldn't, I did not expect it to be gorgeous.
The Ritual is stunningly beautiful. The Swedish mountain backdrops are jaw dropping, and cinematographer Andrew Shulkind (who worked with David Brucker on Southbound) does a masterful job of capturing the dense forest in a way that fills you with constant unease. It reminded me of The Witch - which is always a good thing - the way it would regularly end a scene by lingering on the trees for a couple of seconds too long. When most other movies would cut away to get on to the next set piece, The Ritual will hold. It will dare you to study the trees and question if you saw something move in the distance. You can't go more than five minutes without a long shot of the desolate forest with eerie music and something growling far off in the distance. You never stop being actively aware of how alone they think they are, and you never stop feeling as if something is lurking slightly out of frame, waiting for its opportunity.
Horror is my favorite genre, and as much as I love a fun slasher or something dark and morbid, it's movies in the vein of The Blair Witch Project and 10 Cloverfield Lane that I return to over and over again. Movies that fill me with dread; leave a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that something awful is going to happen to the characters and there's nothing I can do to help them. The Ritual gets its gang into the forest quickly and it doesn’t waste any time letting them know they should not be there. First it’s a deer hanging high in the trees and gutted in a way no deer has ever been propped up unless it was being sacrificed in some sort of witchcraft nonsense. After that it's ominous symbols carved in a tree. A dilapidated house buried deep in the woods with some weird shit up in the attic. All the while with lingering zooms deep into the woods with the sound of something growling in the distance.
|And that’s just the first 20 minutes.|
The tension continues to build as we race towards the third act and I’m having a great time while fully engrossed in the movie, but there’s this one thing gnawing in the back of my head. As their lad's holiday gets exponentially worse, we get small glimpses of what’s hunting them. There is this little voice buried in my subconscious whispering “please don’t fuck this up.” It would have been so crushingly disappointing if all of the beautiful cinematography and pounding dread were wasted on another shitty Slender Man. It would have ruined the entire movie and left a sour taste in my mouth I’d never be able to wash out.
The Ritual hosts one of my favorite creature designs I’ve seen in years, and it is not stingy with showing it to you as the movie comes to an end. As soon as I saw a full shot of it, I knew I had to own it in some capacity so it could sit on my shelf forever. The director knows how good it looks, and once we get to the last 20 minutes or so, he puts it on display. There aren’t many things more satisfying than when a movie masterfully sets up a bunch of pins and knocks them all down.
The Ritual is the Blair Witch sequel I’ve been craving since 1999. The cast is fantastic, the film looks beautiful, and it ramps up a feeling of dread that culminates spectacularly in the best creature design I've seen in at least a decade. It takes the base fear of what lies in the deepest darkest reaches of nature and combines it with heavy Nordic/Pagan/Witchcraft vibes. It isn't reliant on fake jump scares to keep the audience on edge like a certain Blair Witch sequel that will not be named here. It's insane to me that a movie like this can appear on Netflix out of nowhere with zero fanfare and easily be my favorite movie of 2018 so far. My biggest regret is I can't see it on a massive screen somewhere, studying every frame of it to see if something moved far off in the distance or if it was just my butthole trembling.
The sign of an effective horror movie isn't if it makes you jump or scream, it's if it stays with you. As I'm writing this, it's 11 at night and my dog needs to go for a walk. We live at the edge of the apartment complex, right next to a fence separating us from the city's nature trail. I've watched The Ritual twice and I am absolutely fucking terrified to take my little puppy out there.