Ritual, The



Main Cast: Rafe Spall, Sam Troughton

Director: David Bruckner

firetruck pixabay

I’m busy winging my way back home from Mittel-Europa after finishing up my fabulous on location version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  Our finale, Gotterdammerung, was performed in Nuremburg at the old Nazi parade grounds.  We had the whole thing wired with pyrotechnics for the burning of Valhalla sequence at the end together with just a little diversion of the river, but the local fire department came roaring in, just as we were about to throw the switch and demanded to see our permits.  Apparently, TotenStadt productions had not filed all the necessary forms with the Bavarian state authorities and they absolutely refused to allow the effects to take place without them.  As we were a live on camera production, I had no choice but to go on with the show and sang my final aria, not with a background of roiling flames, but with a lot of flashing blue lights and somewhat cheeky local emergency services workers.  I am a professional and I carried on as we had rehearsed although some wag in the sound department mixed in a recording of ‘Let It Snow’ with the last gargantuan Wagnerian chords and spliced in some footage from the end of Die Hard to cover for the shots we couldn’t get due to a firetruck being parked in front of camera crew B’s equipment wagon.

I’m glad I had the experience working in the European opera and with such a stupendous production, but I’m going to tell Joseph, my manager, not to look for something quite so taxing in the future.  My entrance into the Gotterdammerung set by being lowered on a chain from a hovering Harrier jet just about did me in.  I’m surprised I was able to get out a high A-flat, much less the high C that the score required by the time I touched the ground and got myself untangled from various cables.  One of them nearly carried my Valkyrie helmet off when the jet moved away.  I was just able to catch it and jam it back into place while the cameras were trained upon Siegfried.  By this evening, I should be back in Los Angeles and able to spend the night at Casa Maine amongst my own creature comforts.

While on the flight back, where the producers had once again booked me in Delta Comfort despite a contract that explicitly calls for first class travel, I decided to pass the time with Netflix on my tablet.  Better that then trying to make light conversation with the shoe salesman from Omaha in the next seat.  I did a little surfing and settled on a 2017 British film, The Ritual (based on the book by Adam Nevill), that received relatively good reviews but lackluster business when it was released a couple of years ago.  I was also intrigued that it was once again, like Midsommar, a horror film set in Sweden.  I had no idea that Scandinavia was becoming such a hotbed of gothic occurrences.  

In a prologue of The Ritual, we meet a quintet of British university friends who have gotten together for a pub night and who are planning a vacation together away from jobs and family.  They’re all now twenty years older, not in the best shape, and not able to agree on much of anything in regard to a destination.  The five are Luke (Rafe Spall), the quiet leader, Dom (Sam Troughton), the out of shape whiner, Rob (Paul Reid), the devoted family man, Hutch (Robert James-Collier), the methodical prepared one, and Phil (Arsher Ali), the superstitious mystic one.  At the end of the evening, Luke and Rob duck into a shop for a bottle of vodka and become involved in an armed robbery and Rob is brutally killed.  Six months later, the four remaining friends have elected to show their respects to their deceased friend by taking the planned trip, a hike in the wilds of northern Sweden where, at the top of a mountain, they build a cairn and perform a ritual to honor their dead friend.  The weather is grisly and they’re miserable.  When Dom twists his knee and has difficulty walking on their way down the mountain, they decide to take a short cut back to civilization by walking through the woods rather than following the trail the long way around.  In a short while, they’re fairly close to lost, caught in a rainstorm and take shelter for the night in an apparently deserted cabin.  That night, they each have strange dreams, apparently brought on by the circumstances, possibly aided and abetted by the strange headless fetish with the antler arms in the upstairs loft.  Luke awakens to find himself outside with strange puncture wounds in his chest.  Phil is naked in catatonic prayer to the idol in the loft.  They quickly decide to leave the cabin and continue the journey but there’s something in the woods that seems to be following.  And who left the gutted elk splayed and hanging in the trees?  Soon people are disappearing, and an ancient evil is discovered.  And by this time, you realize you’ve seen this movie a number of times before under various titles.

The Ritual starts out promisingly enough.  By keeping itself confined to the world and point of view of our four protagonists, it creates a feeling of unease and paranoia.  They have no idea what’s out there in the woods and neither do we.  There are echoes of The Blair Witch Project without the found footage tropes and the use of symbols of folk ritual of an alien culture make the audience squirm a bit with discomfort.  Director David Bruckner gives us two thirds of a great little B movie as he takes us into the woods with the quartet, haunted by the senseless death of the fifth member.  Luke, who was with him when he died, is especially wracked with guilt and remorse and it plays out as hallucinosis that brings together the woods and the store where the murder happened in some jarring, but nifty moments where we question his grip on reality.  It’s one of the better visual realizations of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder I’ve seen put to film.

Unfortunately, Bruckner, working from a script by Joe Barton, goes off the rails in the last third of The Ritual.  When our protagonists meet the other people inhabiting the woods, there is both a tendency to over-explain and we are shown too much, the downfall of most horror films.  When will directors learn that less is more and that the imagination can supply all of the details.  We don’t need to see the monster, especially when you’re working on a low budget.  The end game doesn’t quite become laughable, but it feels wrong headed and wrong for the movie.  We would have been better off not knowing so much and having to puzzle and cope with the fears of our travelers rather than distance ourselves as we are inundated with unnecessary exposition.

The four actors are well cast and acquit themselves well.  Rafe Spall, son of Timothy, has the showiest role and has to carry much of the last half hour of the film.  He succeeds in creating a wounded man, but with a strong core and we can believe he has the grit to survive.  Robert James-Collier, best known as the conniving Thomas in Downton Abbey, gives us a very different character than we usually see and shows he has some range.  Sam Troughton was my favorite of the four, having the most interesting character arc overall.  He’s new to me as is Arsher Ali who seems to mainly do British TV.

In the end, I recommend watching the first hour or so of The Ritual.  When other people show up, time to go cook dinner.  You can already figure out the ending anyway without sitting through it.

Vodka clutching. Flask pouring. Hiking tents. Runic necklaces. Loki reference. Gratuitous quasi-mummies.  Elk intestines.  Human intestines. Burning buildings.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction, visit her entire back catalog and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missvickilester

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