I call it a common man's review because I have no experience as a critic, no mastery of language to make me a great wordsmith, and no power over my own mind to breakthrough my own opinions. With that being said, I am torn between having great admiration for horror creators and their creations, and myself being possessed of an unending well of fear. One might dive into my psyche and see every horror movie I have ever seen still tearing at the edges of my sanity every night as I lie in bed.
So too will be the case with Netflix's Sweden set horror film The Ritual. Reader beware, there be spoilers ahead.
This British horror flick, directed by David Bruckner—the guy behind V/H/S—is apparently based on a book I've never heard of and-having watched this movie-have no intention of reading. Primarily because, if this movie can put me in my place after only an hour and a half, there's no way I'm reading a book for a couple of days that creates the same feeling of terror.
Our story follows four close comrades, whose backgrounds together we never really get much of a glimpse into—we know that Dom is a teacher and that's about it—but are steadfast friends nevertheless. After—for all intents and purposes—main character Luke witnesses the death of best friend Robert during a convenience store robbery the group honor what seems to be their idea of Luke's last request and go hiking and Sweden. A touching motion on their part, to be sure; next time I walk into a convenience store with a friend on the shady part of town I'll be sure to mention something about spending the night in an abandoned hospital.
In all actuality this is something perfectly normal and in no way scary, unlike most camping horror movies that have a group of friends wandering out into secluded haunted woods on their own; Luke, group-leader Hutch, dark-skinned friend Phil and wussy-man Dom, are all taking a nice scenic hiking trail far from the dark creepy forest. After successfully paying respects to their lost friend (thank God that won't be the requirement for the group that leads to a final back-track of doom) the group sets up camp and sleeps the night away, with a clear view of the lodge they'll set out for in the morning.
All would be perfect if Dom, being the wuss that he is—ah, my spirit animal—didn't twist his ankle (or is it his knee?) and decide that they need to book it back to the lodge. After some deliberation on Hutch and Luke's part, Dom says, “To Hell with the safe path, we could be back in a few hours if we cut through the forest.”
Yes, the terrible decision that doesn't seem all that bad at first; Dom, I thought we were separated at birth, but watching you choose to trek through the forest at night instead of following the much safer trail, I am heart-broken to say the least. Needless to say, following some beautiful scenery shots, some eerie music fading in and out, and some pointless banter, the friends happen across a not-so-rotting corpse strung up in between a couple of trees.
What could have done that? they ask, Dom suggesting a bear. Yes Dom, bears just hang their prey up in the middle of the forest to scare tourists into making stupid mistakes. This is the point where I got to the edge of my seat and stayed there. As I noted, I'm easily scared, so once the movie confirmed—by having all four characters freak out over this thing—that this was not just a psychological thriller, I found my eyes darting to and from the screen in pure terror, really hoping I wouldn't see something I couldn't un-see.
Enough with the play-by-play, this is enough setup to establish what this movie is; at least once they make camp in the creepy abandoned house in the middle of the forest and find a strange idol that the characters claim resembles the way the deer thing was strung up. The ensuing nightmare sequence, tied in with some creepy noises but no one ever actually seeing anything sets the movie up as another Blair Witch Project but without the found-footage flair and not a single female character to bring the men down; they can do that on their own thank you very much.
Unlike the Blair Witch, the creature in the forest is actively hunting the heroes, not necessarily driving them to a point, and eventually picks off two of our heroes. Thank God, at least Luke and Dom are going to make it out. Right before Phil gets hung out to dry by our monster friend, Luke makes an astounding discovery; they are heading the right direction, the lodge isn't much further ahead, and it looks like there are lights all around the mountain. It must be a search party! At least, that's the conclusion I jumped to, and I assume it's the one Luke jumped to.
Cornered by this monster—that no one has actually seen in full light, but Dom has noted has spooky eyes—Dom and Luke make a run for it and I'm pleased to announce that it wasn't false hope; the characters aren't going to get picked apart just as a search party arrives. But, it is false hope, because those lights weren't the search party that Hutch promised would come for them probably eight hours ago. No, it's a well-lit trail that leads right up to a coven of devil-worshippers...or Jotunn-worshippers?
At this point the movie gets into some territory I can really sink my teeth into, but there's not much to chew; after being captured by some creepy people who tie up Luke and Dom, and Dom is tortured a little bit to boot, it's revealed to the audience—and to Luke, one of the chosen apparently—that this creature that's been hunting them is one of the Jotunn, a Frost Giant of Norse legend, and a son of Loki.
Now, a few minutes after we get a peek at the nightmare-inducing creature—not actually as bad as I feared, by the way—and I am not certain which son of Loki this is. For starters, it certainly is not Hel, as best I can tell it can't be Jormungandr—not quite big enough to be the world serpent—and it doesn't appear to be Fenrir, not wolfy enough. Instead, it might be some cross between Sleipnir and a living nightmare, what with its demi-human arms and eyes sticking out of its deer-like upper torso with its four standard running legs and it's ability to stand straight-up like a tree. Yeah, then again, it's quite horrifying.
I'm not all about camping horror; it's too—pardon me—campy. But, I can get behind some monster horror and a final epic fight sequence. Luke escapes his binds, burns down the house he's been contained in, steals a rifle, and shoots a cultist. This leads to him stealing an axe, escaping out the back of the house and-oh would you believe it-shooting the creature in the head... which does nothing.
The chase is on—through nightmarish replays of the night Robert died and the already scary-enough woods—and after a chase sequence...it ends. Luke gets out of the woods, turns around, and roars at the creature, which roars back and shortly turns around. That's it, movie over. Good guys: 1, creepy forest monster: 3.
I think what makes the movie isn't actually the horror, and that's probably not what I'm watching it for anyway. It's more about the change in the character. Not characters—character, singular. Like I said, we don't get a lot of backstory from the party. We know that Dom is married and has kids. We know nothing about Hutch or Phil, and Luke is just the coward, which Dom angrily points out while they're lost. Yes, after watching Robert get brutally murdered in the convenience store, it seems that Dom has been blaming Luke for his death. Hutch points out earlier in the movie that he doesn't think it's Luke's fault, but by this point in the movie that hardly matters.
We get to see Luke transform, though, from a coward incapable of doing anything...to a hero who stands up to the creature that murdered his friends and escapes with his life. Great. Really, it's great to see that, between living forever and possibly being murdered by a man-slaying horse demon, Luke chose the much less safe option; in fairness, though, that cult was full of creepy people and there were only two women in the whole village.
We can only assume that, much like the start of the movie's actual meat, the scenes that follow after the credits roll are just as honorable. Following Dom's instruction, Luke goes home, visit's Dom's wife, tells her about the Jotunn and how it killed all his friends, and spends the rest of his life in an insane asylum or maybe prison, depending on how good of a lawyer he gets. Well, I'm glad the credits roll right after he gets out of the forest and we know that Loki Jr. doesn't chase him down.