Monday 19 February 2018

The Ritual (UK 2017: Dir David Bruckner)

Ah the problems of adapting horror fiction for the big screen. Director David Bruckner's previous genre credits (segments in 2015's Southbound and 2012's V/H/S) demonstrate that he's no stranger to creating an eerie mood in his films, and although The Ritual has plenty of atmosphere, it's arguably less than the sum of its parts.

A group of old friends are planning a boys weekend away, one of the suggestions being a hike along a Swedish hill range. Group leader Luke dismisses the idea, but when the hike proposer dies after being caught up in a bungled shop robbery (Luke is also in the shop, but hides and does nothing when his friend is attacked) they feel duty bound to honour the suggestion as a tribute to their departed friend.

Six months after the incident, with Luke still wracked with guilt, the party embark on the hike. As inexperienced outdoor types, they quickly fall prey to the horrendous weather and difficult terrain, eventually getting lost in a dense forest. But after camping out in an abandoned hut and experiencing a night of sheer terror, they realise that something very big is in the woods and may be stalking them.

I've not read Adam Nevill's book on which The Ritual is based, but I've consumed enough genre fiction to recognise from the structure of the film that Bruckner is probably following the novel fairly closely. And therein lies the problem: although the movie is not overly complex, there are a number of different strands to it which, while they may be visually appealing, don't really add up to much, and probably were more intriguing in print form. And just as the book probably canters towards its monstrous conclusion, so too does the film, in the process moving from the atmospheric and un-guessable to a predictable scenario with a group of guys getting picked off in the woods, accompanied by the ever present thundering score letting the audience know just how scared they should be.

Bruckner also allows us, after playing the old game of tease but don't show, plenty of scenes of the creature. Glimpsed in the trees it's quite something; in plain sight it isn't (have film makers learned nothing from the lessons of the 1957 movie Night of the Demon?).

Castwise the friends are convincing enough as a group of guys whose connection - college in this case - is increasingly tenuous, and their subsequent loss of trust in each other understandable. As Luke Rafe Spall is the natural leader and his guilt hangs over his character very believably - but he deserved a better script. Sadly I lost interest in nearly all the characters in the last half of the movie when they become little more than beast fodder. The other star of the film is the forest itself, with Romania standing in for Sweden. Now on a personal note I once travelled to Romania with my school, and spent quite a lot of time feeling homesick and walking through forests just like the one in the film, with the echoes of teachers' warnings about people you might encounter in them ringing in my ears; so the dense woods and mist laden valleys brought back quite a few memories.

Ultimately The Ritual is a rather disappointing film, which promises a lot but then is unable to sustain our interest. It should have been a creepy, unpredictable flick, but it felt like a squandered opportunity. Shame.

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