Folk horror’s modern roots, especially in cinema can be traced back to a handful of films, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General, and most famously, The Wicker Man. This triptych has had a huge amount of influence over filmmakers for generations, with their twisted echoes found in everything from New England folk-tale movie The VVitch, to The League of Gentlemen. Every few years someone trots out of the woodwork to declare a folk horror revival, but the truth is that the genre has always been there, beneath us. Massive cult hits such as The Blair Witch Project, with twisted twig figurines hanging in the trees, and an endless forest that houses an unseen evil, speak directly to the same genre. It is present in the Grimm atmosphere of Goodnight Mommy, and all over the J-horror boom of the 2000’s.
This is all to say that folk horror, good folk horror, is ground well trodden. A desire path trampled by many feet through the genre. Because of its roots in mythology and folklore, it is extraordinarily difficult to find something new to say within its confines.
The Ritual tries its best though.
Rafe Spall stars as Luke, one of four friends who, six months after the death of their friend Robert, decide to honour his memory by hiking across a mountain range in Sweden. When one of the four is injured, they decide to take a short cut through a forest, and, well, you might be able to guess part of where things go from there.
It’s a film that wears its influences on its sleeve, though that is not necessarily a bad thing. The endless forest recalls the Burkittsville woods in the Blair Witch Project, the tension of the first half feels reminiscent of a male iteration of Neil Marshall’s The Descent, and the climactic scenes bring to mind everything from The Wicker Man to Ben Wheatley’s masterpiece Kill List. The trick with any film playing in such a rich genre is to find something new, and luckily, The Ritual just about manages to do that.
The opening of the film finds Luke and Robert caught in an off license during a robbery. Luke runs and hides, and his cowardice results in the death of Robert. That guilty feeling is with him during the hike, and then through the forest, and manifests itself during several beautifully surreal sequences in which supermarket aisles appear amongst the trees, and the murder of his friend is played out again and again in front of him. That he played some part in the death of his friend also fractures the group of friends, some of whom openly place the blame on him, whilst others appear to be trying to get him to overcome his demons. Though this is likely to feel familiar to anyone who caught The Descent (and if you haven’t, remedy that immediately), the script (based on Adam Nevill’s novel) does a great job exploring the nature of male friendships, and the difficulty of expression within them. An early unsettling set piece has the four friends experience separate nightmares in an abandoned cabin, urinating themselves, and waking up crying. Afterwards, their reluctance to talk to one another about what they collectively experienced said more about masculinity that a great many other films that purport to be about similar things.
Once the tension is relived though, the film doesn’t quite keep up the interest, but that’s an inevitable consequence of the big reveal. The about-turn in the story, in which it veers into a very different kind of film than you may have expected is fine, and fits neatly into the films themes of confrontation and cowardice. The problem isn’t even with the creature design, which is brilliantly weird. Instead, you wind up wishing that director David Bruckner had committed to the more surreal elements of the story.
In the end, The Ritual is a good film, at times very good. Part of that is down to the performances, especially Spall, and part of that is down to a script that’s trying to at least say something different. But it’s bogged down by a litany of reference points that we’ve seen before.
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