Trauma has been at the root of some of the best horror in recent years: Gerald’s Game, It Follows, The Babadook. New British horror The Ritual brings this subtext up above ground while paying homage to a whole coven of folk horror classics.
Four old uni mates – Luke (Rafe Spall), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), Phil (Arsher Ali), and Dom (Sam Troughton) – embark on a hill hiking holiday in Sweden in memory of their friend Rob (Paul Reid), who was savagely killed in a liquor store robbery.
Luke, endlessly chain-smoking cigarettes through a green parka, was present and, having instinctively taken cover at first opportunity, still holds himself accountable. There’s an unspoken sense of unease that the other’s might just feel the same. Hutch is a likeable variation of the natural-born-leader type; all sensible taking command, no alpha-male bullshit. Dom is an obnoxious wuss, whose ankle injury leads them to take a supposed shortcut through an ancient forest.
Part thicketed Blair Witch territory, part spindly, sunlit fairy-tale world – aided by Andrew Shulkind’s crisp, pale cinematography – it’s no surprise when the four come across a boarded-up cabin, nor the Wicker Man-like pagan effigy they find in the attic.1 “This is clearly the house we get murdered in”, Phil half jokes.
The laddish banter quickly transforms into doubt and recrimination as each of the group awakens to their own particular terror: nightmares, bed-wetting, chest wounds. Adapted by Joe Barton from the book by Adam Nevill, The Ritual then becomes a study of survivor’s guilt as filtered through the lens of various horror tropes, both supernatural and psychological. There’s the unknown, deadly creature that begins stalking them, one with a very particular murderous m.o.; the visions of store shelves amid forest trees that begin plaguing Luke.
A tense revisionist horror, the film’s seamlessness reminded me of Bone Tomahawk – equally self-aware, if less gory – but never quite pushes past the films that help define it.