The Ritual takes its sweet time showing the full horror of the creature at the heart of the movie, but when it finally does, the small puzzles of the first two acts come together in a surprising conclusion that should satisfy fans of both creature and psych horror. Based on the novel of the same name by Adam Nevill, The Ritual follows four friends who travel to the Swedish wildlands in an effort to celebrate their mutual friend, Robert, who died during a botched robbery the year before. When one of the friends, Dom, gets injured they decided to take a short cut through some haunted woods, bringing them face to face with a nightmare.
Equal parts The Descent and The Blair Witch Project, The Ritual doesn't bring a lot of new to the table, but the acting is tremendous, the tension airtight, and the final reveal of the Big Bad sufficiently mind-bending to make the trip well worth the price of admission. In particular, the growth of the characters Luke and Dom is surprisingly affecting, providing the beating heart at the center of the tale.
Dom is the fluffy, whiny character, whose injury kicks off the rising action, and in a normal horror movie he'd be the first to go (or to be severely punished for his complaining, e.g. Bobby from Deliverance). Yet, director David Bruckner keeps him around until nearly the end, providing a suitably touching moment between he and Luke, and putting the lie to the concept that characters deserve to die in horror movies. For all of his complaining, when the end comes, Dom stands tall and faces the creature with as much courage as could be expected.
But the story is really about Luke, who carries the guilt of his Rob's death inside him like some kind of poison sac, unable to forgive himself for not acting to save him. The pain is made worse because it's clear his friends think he should have done something too, providing an ambient level of tension within the group from the minute they enter the Swedish wilds. As his friends are picked off by the creature one by one, we see Luke rise to the occasion, eventually freeing himself and escaping the forest. As he turns to the creature, who is bound by the forest, realizing he's free, Luke howls at the creature, a primal scream that manages to capture all the pain and anger Luke has been carrying around throughout the film.
The ending subverts the film a little, since neither Luke nor Dom are particularly likeable characters, and according to traditional horror logic neither of them deserve to live. But, like the creature who taps Luke to survive because of his pain, Bruckner singles out the two misfits for the gravitational center of the film because in the end they are the ones who have the most to work out.
Comparisons to The Descent are difficult to avoid, since they share essentially the same premise. But where The Descent tells a darker, more ambiguous tale, delving into the darkness at the heart of close friendships, The Ritual chooses to show the redemptive, cathartic hope inherent in horror film survival. This makes for a cleaner ending, but one has to wonder...if Luke felt so guilty after Rob's death, how the hell will he feel about this?
The Ritual can be watched on Netflix