After being burned by Legion, I decided to watch a horror movie that I hoped might turn out to be good. I went with The Ritual on Netflix, which has a 73% on Rotten Tomatoes and a pretty nice trailer.
Four friends, grieving their lost buddy, go backpacking across the Scandinavian Mountains. One falls and hurts his ankle. The men to decide to go off the trail, taking a shortcut into the woods. Weird things happen. A dead animal, impaled on high on the branches, drips blood. Strange letters appear on the bark of trees. Something is about to go horrifically wrong.
The Ritual is well-crafted and beautifully shot. The actors all do a good job of making their characters seem believable. They’re everyday blokes who find themselves in an increasingly horrific situation. I bought into the premise from the start, and because of that, for the first half hour of the movie, I was genuinely unsettled and frightened. But the longer the movie went on, the less it scared me.
On a purely visual level, the antagonist is unique, creepy, and even occasionally beautiful. But the story failed to develop the antagonist’s motivation and mythology. This caused the final act to collapse in on itself. The Ritual turned a simple premise into a complicated, muddled mess. It remained beautiful and well-crafted until the very last shot, but by then, I had stopped believing in it. I left the movie with mixed feelings and vague sense of disappointment.
Why is that though?
(Warning: From this point on, I will be a LONG, scene-by-scene summary, that will SPOIL every plot point of the movie. If you haven’t seen The Ritual, read on at your own discretion.)
On its surface, horror has one job. It has to scare you. But this job is a lot harder than it seems. Not only is fear incredibly subjective, but a good deal of it is based on shock value. This may be why some of the most frightening and iconic horror scenes occur at the start of the film. A person munching popcorn in the mundane safety of his own home is suddenly inundated with blood, violence, and death. How can later scenes even compete with that initial, world-shattering shock?
Maybe it’s impossible for a horror movie to scare an audience throughout the film. If so, does that mean the movie is doomed to fail? I would argue no. As long as some scares are delivered, the movie has done its job--provided it can tell a good story. And this is the fundamental problem I have with The Ritual. The story didn’t hold up; the events didn’t mean anything. And so, when all was said and done, there was nothing for me to take away from it.
The Ritual begins with five men at a pub. A mundane scene of everyday life in modern England. The men are no longer young, but they’re not yet ready to give in to middle age. They’re about my age (mid-thirties) and I can relate to them. As they bicker over where to take their next group vacation, Robert (Paul Reid) suggests hiking the King’s Trail that runs from Sweden to Norway. The others quickly shoot him down.
On the way home, Luke (Rafe Spall) wants to stop at a liquor store, but everyone else declines. It’s school night and all. Eventually, Robert goes with him. Robert keeps talking about this vacation, and how he really wants to go on this hike. I get the impression that he knows their time for grand adventures are coming to an end. Luke picks up a bottle and notices that the girl at the cash register has hunkered down behind the counter. Her nose is bloody. There is a look of terror in her eyes.
Two men burst in. Luke dives behind the shelves of bottles, causing them to clink. The sound draws the robbers’ attention. The robbers don’t see Luke. They do see Robert, who didn’t take cover in time. They proceed to mug him. Luke clutches the bottle in his hand like a club. Should he use it for a weapon? Should he attack? He doesn’t move.
The robber asks Robert to hand over his wedding ring. Robert hesitates. The robber cracks Robert across the head. He falls. Still frozen, Luke stares at his friend, spatters of blood across his face. Robert tries to get up, and the robbers crack him again. This time, dark blood pools under his limp body.
This scene is visceral and shocking. It’s not scary in the vein of monsters and ghosts and men with masks who won’t die. It’s a mundane incident, the kind that could happen in everyday life, and it’s that believability that scares me. This could happen to me.
And it’s not just the fear of being harmed, but the fear that when someone you love needs you, you’ll fail them. You’ll show yourself to be a coward, and because of your cowardice, your friend will die.
The movie resumes months later, with the four remaining friends hiking the King’s Trail as a tribute to Robert. Luke is quiet, obviously guilt-ridden. Hutch (Robert James-Collier), the natural leader of the group, is in good spirits, the only one of the group who seems to be enjoying himself. Dom (Sam Troughton) and Phil (Arsher Ali), by contrast, complain. The friends build a memorial for Robert out of stones and press forward through the breath-takingly beautiful golden hills.
Then Dom twists his leg. Though he can hobble, he knows the injury will be bad and wants to get to their accommodations as soon as possible. When Hutch suggests a shortcut through the woods, he jumps on it. The four friends go into the wild forest. Clearly, this is a very, very bad idea.
There is something frightening about going into the woods. It’s not so much that the trees are spooky, although they are beautiful on film, tall and symmetrical and infinite. No, it’s the notion of what can happen when you veer off the trail. Getting lost or hurt or hungry. Getting attacked by a wild animal. Being vulnerable. And that’s just the ordinary danger. That’s not even considering all the dark mysteries that lurk in the heart of the forest.
For example--a bear impaled on high branches, gutted and dripping blood. The men reel when they see this, but this is only the start of the horror. Strange markings appear on the trees. Luke hears a horrible cry. They enter a deserted cabin, and Phil finds a creepy effigy in the attic, like a man made of sticks, with no head, antler hands, and chicken feet.
At this point, I’m genuinely in suspense. The thought of where the movie could go, the horrible mutilations that might be inflicted on characters I’ve grown to like, has me so creeped out, I actually turn off the movie for a second. Sure, I say it’s to use the bathroom, but really, I need a moment to brace myself. I turn it back on, and the men go to sleep.
Outside the cabin, it storms. Lightning flashes--and stops. A bright, white light appears outside the door. Luke wakes and ventures out to investigate. He finds himself under the florescent glow of a liquor store, the exact same liquor store where Robert died. Shelves of bottles surround him, but the floor is the moss. He’s in the store, but also in the woods. Luke picks up a bottle. A drop of blood appears on the label.
Suddenly, the shelves fly away to reveal the naked forest. Six pinpricks of blood appear on Luke’s shirt.
Screams come from inside the cabin. Luke rushes inside. Hutch has wet himself. Dom thrashes, screaming his wife’s name. Phil is missing. They find him naked in front of the effigy, worshipping it against his will. The blood on Luke’s shirt is welling, and when he checks he sees six deep holes in his chest, like something has pricked him with claws.
A lot is happening. The imagery is well-shot, and the acting is quite good. I feel I should be scared, but I’m not. Instead, a mild confusion tugs at my brain. Something is not right.
Seeing the bright lights of the liquor store, I assumed Luke was dreaming, and that the purpose of the dream was to address his trauma and develop the character. So I relaxed. I assumed I was safe. But the dream didn’t delve into Luke’s psychology. Instead, he was attacked.
But the attack happened so quickly, I barely had time to process it. Then he heard screams and instead of waking, he went back inside the house. Which meant it wasn’t a dream, after all. But if it wasn’t a dream, what was it? Why were there liquor bottles in the woods? Was it an illusion? What attacked him? A monster? Witchcraft?
What’s going on?
Sometimes ambiguity can be terrifying--but not in this case. Monsters are scary because they are strong and fast, they have claws and teeth, they can bite you and kill you and eat you. Witchcraft is scary because it is insidious and evil, it gets into your brain and takes over your will, and you don’t know what it wants or how to fight it. Both are frightening—but in different ways.
In which way am I supposed to be scared?
Back to the friends. It’s morning, and they leave the cabin. No one really wants to talk about their dreams. They wander down a path, arguing. Dom’s health is going downhill fast, and even Phil has difficulties. Luke climbs a hill to get his bearings on their location. Pale birch trees surround him, beautiful but relentless in the yellow sunlight. Luke despairs. And something catches his eyes. The camera zooms in and something moves. Something quick. Something… camouflaged.
Luke runs back to warn his friends, but Dom doesn’t want to hear it. Instead, they all start sniping about whose fault it is that they’re in this situation to begin with. Dom blames Luke. He says they wouldn’t be here at all, if not for him… if not, for Robert’s death. Now, it’s coming out. Dom calls Luke a coward. “Not one drop of blood on you,” Dom says. Luke punches Dom in the face.
The timing feels a little off. Tempers are frayed, and the truth comes out—I get it. But it messes with Luke’s character arc. You see, Luke has been suffering survivor’s guilt. He blames himself for Robert’s death and suspects that his friends secretly blame him as well. But because the words are never spoken out loud, this fear, this tension, simmers. Once spoken, though, the blame can be confronted, punched in the mouth, so to speak. The tension diffuses.
And the tension should diffuse eventually, but maybe not now, before the midway point of the film. Before the monster… or whatever is hunting them… has made its big appearance. Rather than merge the old trauma with the new trauma, and force Luke to deal with both, the two seem to veer off course. The former is solved, so that Luke can focus on the latter.
Night falls, and the friends have no choice, but to plant their tents in the forest and camp out. While sitting in his tent, Luke hears something. He peers outside. A dark figure looms in the forest. Florescent lights flicker, revealing the liquor store once again. This time, the robber strikes Robert and takes the wallet off his bleeding body. Suddenly, the robber sees Luke. His eyes glow. “Coward,” he hisses.
Luke huddles back inside the tent. The spiked shadow of a creature passes over him. The monster snarls. Luke looks out. The liquor store is gone. His friend’s tent sits on the ground. Suddenly the tent flies into the air.
Luke wakes up inside his tent to the sound of screaming. Hutch’s tent is trampled and torn, a smear of blood across the canvas floor. Phil, bowed over on the ground, says the creature took him. Luke valiantly goes after him, but Dom, in a twist of irony, says they need to go back. They can’t lose their tents and their equipment.
Again, in spite of the imagery, the atmosphere, the hard work of everyone involved, I’m just not scared. This stupid liquor store is sapping my fear, because every time it pops up, it confuses me. Why are we here? It doesn’t give us new insight into Luke’s character. The robber… or monster… called him a coward, but so what? Dom just called him that, which was probably harder to take. The tension is gone. The issue’s been dealt with.
Plus, it’s not even true. Not anymore. Luke leads the charge to find Hutch, in spite of the woods and the darkness and the scary monster. He doesn’t hesitate. His friend needs to pull him back. Luke is not a coward. The liquor store might cause him pain, but it no longer acts as an obstacle.
So why is the monster employing this tactic?
At least, I think it’s a monster. It’s probably a monster. Phil said as much, and besides, they find Hutch’s body the next morning, impaled high atop the trees. Witchcraft can’t do that. Dom, who up until now has done nothing but whine, gets a moment of sympathy, when he insists on burying Hutch’s body.
With Hutch gone, Luke becomes the natural leader. He charts the course, keeps spirits up, and practically drags his ailing friends through the forest. Checking ahead once more, Luke spies a break in the forest—as well as a light. A fire, perhaps. A house. He goes back to tell his friends just in time to see the creature snatch up Phil.
Luke runs and smacks into… a tree? …the creature? It’s unclear. But the conk sends him into his third liquor store vision. Sigh. This time, as Robert lies bleeding and gasping, Luke darts out of the liquor store and sees Hutch, Dom, and Phil standing on the street, alive and nicely dressed. They look up from their phones, waiting expectantly.
Insightful, as always. You know, I’m starting to think that the reason we keep returning to this scene is because this is all the characterization Luke has. Strip him of his trauma, and he’s a quiet, average everyman, a blank slate of personality. And you know what, fine. For the purpose of this movie, trauma is all the characterization he needs--if he interacted with it. If he overcame it. If he did something with it.
And for a moment, it looks like he might. Luke comes out of the vision and stares at Phil’s fallen flashlight in the dark woods. After a long pause, he picks it up and begins to search for his friends in the woods.
This is the turning point of his character arc, where he stops being the coward and becomes the hero. Except--well, he’s already done it. As soon as Hutch vanished, Luke has been acting as a hero, so this decision to go back for his friends isn’t exactly a surprise. Moreover, the film never showed why he made the decision or how he overcame his fear. His big redeeming moment falls flat.
Luke finds Dom. Dom is hiding. Dom has now taken on the coward role that Luke discarded like a sweater. Luke tells Dom they need to run for it, and they both hobble through the woods, toward the light that Luke spied earlier. The creature cries out. The men catch a glimpse of Phil’s body impaled on the trees. They press on. The path to the cabin is lit with torches--not a good sign, but when you are being chased by a monster, what can you do? They run into the cabin and shut the door, hoping the flimsy wooden barrier will keep out this unholy terror.
It does. However, it is out of the frying pan and into the fire for our heroes. As Swedish folk music plays on an old record player, a creepy old woman stares down at them. A boot kicks Luke unconscious.
Luke wakes to find himself and Dom tied up in a room. Through a hole in the wall, Luke sees people erecting a structure, clearly meant for a sacrifice. Makes sense. The movie is called The Ritual, after all. Creepy Old Woman comes in the room and gives Luke water. She notes the scars on Luke’s chest and shows him her own. This is a mark of the creature’s favor. I’m going to assume Luke is safe.
Dom, who has no such mark, is not. Creepy Old Woman denies him water and tall men haul him away. Luke hears thuds as Dom is dragged upstairs. His friends screams. Obviously, they aren’t going to kill him just yet, but it’s disturbing not to know what they’re doing to him. Dom pleads and begs. “No, no!”
Just as my imagination starts working itself into a fever, a nice blond lady comes inside and puts her hand over Luke’s ears. “They prepare for sacrifice,” she kindly tells him in English. “Over soon.”
This undercuts the tension. Look, being captured by a cult of creepy forest people is honestly frightening, in part because you can’t understand them and you can’t reason with them. But you can understand and reason with Nice Blond Lady. As she cradles Luke, she reassures us everything will be all right.
Dom is dragged back to the room. He’s beaten and bloody, but not mutilated. I’m not sure how they “prepared” him for sacrifice. Anyway, Dom is finally ready to share his dream from the cabin that first night. He saw himself being offered as a sacrifice by these very people. Then he saw his wife, and he knew he was going to die. I’m confused. As far as I can tell, his wife isn’t dead, so how are the two correlated?
And how did the monster know Dom was going to die like this? Can it see the future? Or did it just plant the image in his head and work to make it come true? Why bother with this psychological torture at all? The monster just wants to impale things on trees, right? That’s its thing.
At any rate, Dom has accepted his death. Luke, however, shakes his head and says that he can’t lose Dom, too. He can’t lose all his friends. Fair point. Even if Luke does survive, the loss will be tremendous. Dom tells Luke he needs to survive and burn everything down.
The creepy people haul Dom out and hang him high on the stake. Dom yells at the beast to hurry up, because the suspense is killing him. Inside the cabin, Luke twists against his bonds. The tension does build nicely, right up until the bushes part and out comes… Dom’s wife?
I’m… not sure what to make of this. It’s not like Dom’s wife is scary. She’s not warped or bleeding or grotesque. She’s a normal woman. She comes over to him and strokes his face. And then it’s not her. It’s this black hooded void with two glowing eyes in the center. Clutching Dom by the head, the beast lifts him and slowly impales him on the tree.
What is it with the creature and impaling people? Sure, it’s gruesome, but it’s also uncreative. Doing the same thing loses its shock value. And why assume the form of Dom’s wife? Was that supposed to be torture? If anything, it comes across as compassionate.
By this time, Luke’s freed himself, but since he wasn’t able to save his friend, he slumps against the cabin walls, sad and defeated. Nice Blond Lady comes in again. He asks her what the monster is.
“A god,” she says. “Ancient. One of the Jotunn. A bastard off-spring of Loki.”
And with one word, any fear I had left drains away, like boiling water through a colander.
Thanks to the MCU, when I hear Loki, I immediately think of Tom Hiddleston in a black wig. I think of Thor: Ragnarok, bright colors, fun action, lots of jokes. And while I know the woman is referring to the original Norse mythology, the fact of the matter is, a movie made in 2018 has to know that Marvel has already subsumed this particular allusion. My mind is hacked. I can’t take this monster seriously.
But even if they had decided to go with some other ancient mythology—say, Greek—the explanation would still destroy my sense of fear, because I just don’t believe in myths. They’e not real. Do you seriously expect me to believe that Norse gods roamed the land, populated it with monsters, then all died out, leaving no shred of physical evidence behind? Except for this single monster, who has existed in these woods, unseen, for millennium by oh-so-stealthily impaling every lost hiker onto a tree?
Nope. Sorry. Not buying it.
Maybe with some world-building, with some sort of explanation, I’d begin to feel like an ancient monster could exist in our world. But with 10 minutes left, there’s no time. The literary allusion hits the plot like a cannonball, and Luke chooses to ignore it.
Nice Blond Lady tells him her people worship the jotunn, as it gives them immortality and takes away their pain. “Your ritual begins tonight,” she tells Luke. “You will kneel before the god. If not, it will hang you from the trees.” Nice Blond Lady also bears the mark of the creature on her chest, prompting Luke to ask why he was chosen. “Your pain is great,” she says. Before she can elaborate, Luke cuts her off. “I’m not like you and I will not live like this.” Nice Blond Lady stares. “You will kneel before it, like the rest of us,” she intones and leaves the room.
Well, my suspension of disbelief is gone.
Who are these nuts that worship this creature? If the jotunn does in fact grant immortality, it’s possible that they could be the ancient Norsemen who worshiped Odin, Thor, and the like. As such, they might find these living conditions tolerable. But the creature has been selectively recruiting people from the modern world. Nice Blond Lady, for example, speaks English.
And while the new recruits might bow down for a day or two to escape being impaled, why on earth would they stay? Immortality sounds great and all, but living in the middle of nowhere, cut off from friends and family (assuming they haven’t been murdered before your very eyes), with no running water or Internet or people who speak your language? Immortality ain’t so great if your life sucks.
And let’s talk about the creature’s selection process. It chooses people based on pain? Really? Every person in the world has pain. Luke underwent a great trauma. Fine. Why is that desirable? Does the creature think pain makes people easier to brainwash? If brainwashing is the goal, maybe the answer should have been “fear.” The jotunn chooses the cowards, knowing it can control them.
Then again, brainwashing implies cunning and social intelligence. I’ve seen no such qualities from the beast. Here is a “god” that can get into a person’s head and use illusion, shapeshifting, dreams, hypnosis, and/ or hallucinations to make that person’s worst fears come to life. Yet it ensures the compliance of its followers by impaling them on trees? I mean, is this monster a brute animal or a sentient, imaginative being? I honestly don’t know.
At any rate, once Nice Blond Lady leaves, Luke quickly makes his escape. Chanting from upstairs draws his attention. Luke grabs a torch and investigates. A bunch of living mummies are holding a congregation in the attic. It’s meant to be scary and perhaps harken to the immortality promised. But at this point, I don’t care, and neither does Luke. He blinks and burns them with a torch. They scream and die. Easy enough.
The fire draws the wrath of the creature. It storms over in a hissy fit. Outside, the followers see it approach and prostrate themselves on the forest floor. But this jotunn is not having it. It kills Nice Blond Lady, who dared glance up at it, and then proceeds to slaughter all the cult members it worked so hard to get.
Inside the house, Luke further undermines the threat of the cult by punching Creepy Old Woman in the face and shooting Tall Guy with the riffle he conveniently found in the closet. Where did the guns come from? Do cult members regularly emerge from the forest, walk however many miles to the nearest city, and purchase guns on the black market?
As the house burns, Luke stumbles out and sees the creature in all its full and stunning glory. I must admit, this is beautiful image. In a background of flames, the silhouette of the jotunn grips a limp body in its tusks. An elephant head sits atop a horse’s body, with spikes along its back and a crown of antlers. But as it turns, the elephant head becomes a monstrosity of a human body, with spider-like arms and a sunken pit where the head should be.
Luke ought to run away while the creature is distracted, but he’s got to prove he’s not a coward. He takes a shot at the jotunn. Stupid move. Now the creature has him in his sights. Luke runs. The jotunn chases him. It’s faster and stronger than Luke, but rather than simply kill him, the creature taunts him with illusions. Lights flicker on. Shelves of liquor bottles appear beside the tall trees.
You know, this image never worked from me, even from the beginning, and now I know why. The liquor store is set in the modern world, a world anchored by realism, a world we know and understand. In it, Luke is an everyday guy, who freezes in the face of violence. The forest is a mythic world, a magic world, beautiful and deadly, a realm of twisted fantasy. Here, Luke shoulders the mantle of hero, taking on monsters with hardly a moment of hesitation.
Two diametrically opposed worlds jammed together in a single image. But this forced merger doesn’t reconcile their inherent differences. Seeing the liquor store in the woods only reminds me of how far we’ve strayed from the grounded reality where we began. It could be surreal--if I bought into this strange new world.
Luke runs. The beast crashes through a shelf, sending bottles flying. Are these illusions real? Did the jotunn actually put up the lights and shelves? The beast knocks Luke over. On the ground, Luke spies an axe-head lying on the dirt. More importantly, he sees dawn breaking through the trees.
The beast starts to pick Luke up, as if to impale him, but when Luke falls kowtow on the ground, the beast lets him go. The jotunn stretches up to its full glory, its chest puffed and its many arms clasped and raised, like a god waiting to be worshipped.
Or maybe a pro-wrestler showing off his torso. Honestly, this monster is kind of pathetic. Bad enough to have a stupid weakness—if you bow, it won’t kill you—I mean what is that? But it’s not even a consistent weakness. Phil bowed plenty, and he was second to be impaled. Its followers bowed, and the jotunn tore them apart. If anything, Luke should have been the exception to the “bow down or die” rule.
But no. Luke stands up and the beast angrily shoves him down. It’s like Luke is a puppy the jotunn is trying to train. Bad Luke! I’m the one in charge! Now show me your belly and I’ll give you a treat!
But Luke is no happy puppy. Luke grabs the axe and whacks the creature across the face. While the jotunn howls in pain, Luke stumbles out of the forest into the bare yellow hills, misty in the morning light.
Ask any child, and they will tell you monsters can’t come out in the daytime. Monsters also can’t leave the forest. As soon as you get out, you’re safe. This is literally what happens. The jotunn, an ancient god with speed and strength and powers of immortality, cannot step two feet out of the line of trees. As it cowers in the forest, Luke roars in triumph. He walks away, and the film cuts to black.
Well… okay… um…
…. so what was the point of this movie?
The Ritual wasn’t terrible. It was definitely an experience. But an experience of what? Most horror movies are about survival in the presence of a powerful, malevolent force. Luke does survive, but mostly because the monster lets him. The jotunn has every opportunity to kill him and fails. The forest setting evokes themes about the dread of the unknown and civilization versus the wild, but I’m not sure what conclusions I’m meant to draw. That we should destroy the forests, lest an evil god lurk in the wild?
That leaves Luke. His character arc could have been about overcoming trauma, guilt, and/ or fear. But even though he did overcome these things, the movie (so far as I can tell) did not answer the fundamental question of how. He just stopped. Trauma, guilt, and fear were no longer an obstacle—if they ever were to begin with.
In the end, what did Luke gain? He came out alive and he learned he wasn’t a coward. But, like at the beginning of the film, he failed to save the life of even one friend. Nor did he defeat the monster. He wasn’t quite the everyman trying to survive, and he wasn’t quite the hero saving innocent people. He was stuck in the middle, not one archetype or the other, without enough character development to flesh him out as an individual.
In the end, The Ritual was a beautiful piece of art that came so close to having something I could cling to, something I could take with me and remember it by. But it didn’t quite get there. And that’s too bad.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.