After his sombre anthology-horror film, Southbound, David Bruckner’s attempts to scare the audience are once again shackled in chains and cuffs of cliché and convention with woods-chiller, The Ritual.
After a brief attempt at deciding on a holiday destination, two friends enter an off-license to buy a bottle as the remainder of the group disperse to homes and partners. The establishment is being robbed, and one of the friends sneaks behind the shelves, abandoning the other to answer to a duo of degenerate, drug-addled thugs. Keeping calm and collected is not enough to avoid conflict; respectfully refusing to hand over his wedding ring results in his unflinching murder. Months later, the friends present on that fateful night minutes before their friends death come together to embark on a hiking trip in a remote part of Sweden – the trip that their dearly departed would have wished they go on together.
Accidents happen, and due to an injury endured by one of their company, the collective decide to take a short-cut through the woods to reach their destination with haste. Just as anyone who has ever watched a Horror flick will think, all is not well under the secluded shade of the vast woodland. The group bicker as to what it is that seems to be terrorizing their every move, and begin to find enemies amongst themselves in their increasingly heated discussions. But, one thing is for sure; just like the men’s mysterious antagonist, the audience will anticipate and expect every move they make. The Ritual almost seems to exist as crochet, or a patchwork-quilt that stiches together every genre convention, every cliché and foolish decision that urges the eyes to roll like pins over pastry. It is rather difficult to think of anything that Bruckner achieves that feels remotely original, smart or even inspired. Certain sequences that feel familiar feel too lazily orchestrated to feel like artistic influence – merely imitation in the most direct sense of the term.
As the group of friends sit in the pub during the film’s opening sequence, the dialogue has a naturalistic believability to it. This pleasingly continues as they begin their venture over the rocky and colour-drained terrain. Besides the obvious signals of future catharsis for the protagonist in the films exposition, the pieces at play are set into motion with promise. It is when it is established wholeheartedly as work rooted firmly in the Horror genre that it goes nowhere, or perhaps more fittingly, nowhere you would not expect or even want it to. Any cine-literate audiences will recognise some slightly gratifying shot constructions, but as they are spliced into scenes that possess nothing else that feels satisfying, they lose any power to fuel tension or fear that they may have otherwise achieved if situated within a story worthy of intrigue.
Any attempts to encourage investment or sympathy for the characters feels forced, and in moments of intended tension, it may be a more rational response to laugh than feel anything close to discomfort. The combination of simultaneously expressing present events and past trauma means that both, which may have worked sufficiently alone, both detract from one another resulting in a lack of emotional resonance and no willingness to care about what is going on. If when every time the threat surfaces to prey on the characters a flashback forces itself into the shots, consuming the present action taking place, there is no way Bruckner can maintain any scares – not that he does very well in establishing them.
It acts as no surprise that the director’s previous experience notes his involvement with yet another anthology horror, V/H/S, of which he directed the segment ‘Amateur Night’; The Ritual certainly feels like a short-film concept stretched out into a feature film duration consisting of every overused genre trait in the handbook. Amateur night indeed.