The Ritual - Review: The Bear Witch Project
Surprise! No, it’s not actually a surprise, I’m just talking about surprises. Some people love them, some people hate them but their uncertainty always has an interesting way of distorting your perspective. Something you think your hate can turn out alright when your friends just spring it on, removing all your preconceptions and encouraging you just to go with it. Or sometimes, something coming as a shock snaps you into a defensive stance, encouraging you to look upon something you’d probably like negatively, just because you were not expecting. I find that can be the case with films that have big unexpected changes, altering their entire nature. It can be difficult to judge just how you feel about them in the moment as you’re more inclined to react against the degree of change rather than what’s actually happening. The Ritual (2017... there’s a lot of films with that name) is definitely one of those films. It has a very different final act that left me genuinely unsure how I felt about it..... but after a lot of thinking back, I came down against it. The Ritual is two-thirds great horror film followed by one third average at best.
Luke (Rafe Spall – Life of Pi), Hutch (Robert James-Collier – Downtown Abbey), Phil (Arsher Ali – Four Lions) and Dominic (Sam Troughton – Robin Hood) are four 30-something post-university friends on a hiking holiday in Sweden, in memory of their recently killed friend, Rob. That is until a shortcut through the woods has a very different fate in store for them.
Alright, I’m going to be tip-toeing a lot around final act spoilers so “bear” with me here. For now, let’s forget and focus on the main body of the film, as showcased in the trailers, which is an excellent small cast psychological horror film. First up, there’s no overstretched build up. The film establishes itself and its bantering Brit main characters very quickly efficiently so this is a great film for horror fans that normally fall asleep waiting, “the good stuff” to begin. There’s also great chemistry among the 4 men that quickly feel like long time friends and there’s some good tension breaking laughs in their dialogue. Once they enter the dense wood,s there’s an immediate switch flick of intensity as the stillness of the surroundings set in and smaller jump-based scares build towards the first big event. There’s a really strong theme of fear. “Whatever’s out there” is seemingly able to mess with their heads and make them experience their worst fears. This links well into the film’s opening as Luke is still wrapped with guilt over being too afraid to help Rob during the robbery. Much of the film takes place from Luke’s perspective, and there’s some terrific imagery of visual transitions between his nightmares and the real surroundings; often involving parts of the store robbery appearing in the forest and gets used very creatively.
Luke’s perspective also drives the film’s biggest strength in imaginative uncertainty. The film suspends excellent disbelief over whether the events are real or all in their head. It’s the kind of effect 2016's snooze fest, The Forest (the one with Natalie Dormer from Game of Thrones) was going for only much better executed. Little touches like Luke witnessing his friends wrenching out of their nightmares in states but maintaining their secrecy really helps build curiosity over what’s going on inside their heads. Granted, it may lean a bit too heavily on genre troupes like Blare Witch style waking up to a redecorated camp site. That’s not to say it’s bad, just nothing most genre fans won’t have seen before. It’s nicely messed-up in places and all the events are strengthened by great reactions and varying degrees of freaking out by the 4 actors. Raff Spall is a solid lead but particular credit should be given to Sam Troughton being both comic relief and the antagonist of the group’s internal conflict.
Then....there is the change. Now the issue I have here is not so much with the content. It’s that in the process it kills most of the above strengths dead in their tracks. Instead of that wonderful uncertainty letting your imagination fill in the blanks, everything receives rather underwhelming answers. Rather than not knowing what’s out there, we see it in all of its questionable CG glory. While close-up shots of reveal considerable levels of detail that went into the design, it can’t help feel like an anti-climax. It turns a great psychological horror film into a more disposable creature feature. Even given everything involved, the whole revealed setup stretches the believability way to far from what started out as a more grounded affair. Now, I’m saying the final act is a waste, it does some good creepy moments and parts you will enjoy. It’s just got nothing on everything that comes before it, and most viewers will rather have that continued instead. It’s like the film makes a sudden swerve, hits a tree and can only limp along afterwards.
Even if the smash cut final 30 minutes don't overly appeal, I would still recommend The Ritual to psychological horror fans for the strength of its earlier material. For horror fans in general, this is still a decent effort and while flood gates are about to open as Halloween rolls around, this is a good fix to keep you going until then.