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The Ritual

Year: 2017
Studio: eOne
Director: David Bruckner
Writer: Joe Barton/Adam Nevill
Cast: Rafe Spall, Asher Ali, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton, Paul Reid

Personal trivia. I never would have watched this movie except that when I was publishing my first self published novel Falling, I downloaded the cover image of the original novel by Adam Nevill as possible inspiration for my own cover. I saw that it was on Netflix and kept seeing it in my recommendations, so I watched it out of curiosity.

It looked on the surface like a cross between Gareth Evans' The Apostle and An American Werewolf in London, a creature feature set in a very real world of rural horror, and it certainly had elements of both (and more).

The first thing to appreciate is the realistic modern Britishness of it. You can tell a movie made about English people by American filmmakers because they think it's just about accents, but either the script by Joe Barton, the direction by David Bruckner or the input from the four leads sprinkled their interplay liberally with the idioms and intricacies of the way modern Englishmen speak.

The pre-credits coda shows five friends out at a pub, Luke (Rafe Spall), Phil (Arsher Ali), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), Dom (Sam Troughton) and Rob (Paul Reid). Rob and Luke go to a nearby convenience store for more booze, oblivious to the fact that it's in the middle of being held up by two thugs. When they realise, Luke hides while the thugs set upon Rob, and he can't bring himself to intervene to try and save his friends as they club Rob to death for his watch and wallet.

Months later the remaining four are on the annual pilgrimage they always take, slightly diminished by the absence of their dead friend. Luke is fragile, barely holding his life together because of the guilt that he didn't do something to save Rob at the time, and everyone else is supportive and respective of him but a little bit resentful in equal measure – a dynamic which will come up when things are at their most fraught.

They're on a hiking trip through the mountains of the Swedish wilderness, and it's in their complaints and bickering about the discomfort and how they'd rather be anywhere else that a lot of the snappy (and very British dialogue) takes place.

Dom injures his knee in a fall and in order to get back to camp quicker, they realise they have to cut through dense forest. The night brings a torrential rainfall, so they find an abandoned cabin to hole up in, finding all sorts of talismans and artefacts from a strange, seemingly pagan belief system inside. But the boys light a fire, try to dry off and eventually get some sleep.

Each one of them awakens the next morning in quite a state. They're all plagued by nightmares. Luke wakes up with a pattern of puncture wounds on his chest. Phil wakes up prostate and naked before the effigy of some bizarre creature, apparently having been praying to it.

Despite being a bit shaken they're four modern lads who know not to let a shadowy house scare them, so they set off. But it's soon apparent they're not alone in the forest. Something seems to be stalking them through the underground, rustling in the bushes outside their tents at night. They're awoken by screams. Gutted bodies appear in trees, freshly killed and with entrails still dripping.

Increasingly desperate and lost, they finally find their way to rural village, but in true horror movie fashion they only think they've found civilisation while they're in fact entering the belly of the beast. The townspeople are backward, skittish and enigmatic and seem to worship some kind of animal – the same one that might have been following the boys through the forest.

One of the most interesting things about the film is a recurring visual motif that actually reminded me of one of the best things about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where we're seeing Joel's (Jim Carrey) memories play out in places from his life intersecting. His bed appears on the beach at Montauk, he walks through Clementine's bookstore place of work to find the sand and fence posts from the beach house, etc.

The Ritual does something similar more than once when Luke sees a glow from the forest and comes across the line of fluorescent lights and aisles of food and booze from the convenience store where Rob died in front of him, right there amid the trees. It's a narratively handy and extremely cinematic way of depicting his fracturing consciousness, Luke not sure what's real and what's a fever dream from his crushing guilt.

In the last 20 minutes or so it goes pretty full CGI monster mash, and while it's cool to see the creature in any horror movie (and the hybrid skeleton/moose/human thing that impales its prey on massive antler/tusks looks like the designer took a lot of LSD before he sat down the sketch it), it represents a slightly off-kilter change in tone. Until then the set-up has been so starkly realistic and human, to descend/morph so far into a B movie chase with a bloodthirsty creature doesn't feel like it quite connects with everything else.

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