Ginger Nuts of Horror
I really wasn’t sure what to expect going in to see ‘The Ritual’, the 2017 big screen adaptation of Adam Nevill’s novel. I’ll admit to not having read the book, a fact I do now intend to rectify, but nor had I seen more than a short trailer for it. A trailer which, I feel I should mention, was great. It gave nothing away, except the basic premise. I’d actually use this trailer as an example for how to set out your stall as a filmmaker. Lure the audience in, give them the basic idea the story is about, but don’t do what most Hollywood studios seem to do these days, which is to give the whole thing away in trailer. Just off the top of my head, I can think of several films in the past year where the entire plot, including twists and turns that ought to be a surprise, could be seen in the trailer. The Ritual avoided this deftly. So we were off to a good start.
Unusual (and often difficult) a concept as it may be in the era of trailers acting as mini-movies, I quite like going into a film blind. I have one of those cards that lets me see an unlimited number of films every month, so that often means I see things I might not otherwise bother with if I had to pay each time. This in turn helps with the feeling of going in not quite sure what you were going to see. Now, I’d have paid to see the Ritual, of course, as it’s based on the work of a writer whose books I enjoy, and also the fact that it’s a horror film would probably be enough to get me in there. But even though it was a film already on my radar, the marketing had been clever enough that I knew little about the plot. And so into the cinematic woods I went.
I feel it’s necessary to put “Spoiler Alert” here, as I will be discussing points of the film in a manner that can’t really be done without them. Unless you want to read an article full of “that bit was good where a thing happened I can’t mention”, then I’m afraid spoilers are a necessity.
The film opened with a crucial scene introducing the characters, and the event that would bring them to their hiking holiday in Sweden. The five men who are to be the main characters of the film are on a night out discussing ideas for holidays, when two of them wander into a late night supermarket for a bottle of Vodka. Then things go south fast when the shop is subject to a brutal robbery which takes the life of one of the men. It was both a strong and unusual opener for a horror film, as it could have been placed in any number of genres. There was nothing particularly ‘horror film’ about that opening, and therein lied its strength. You could have been about to watch a ‘coming to terms’ drama, a buddy film about friends regaining their love for another, or even a revenge film or crime drama. So real, so honest was that opening scene, that you felt like you were in the real world. That, for me, was a rarity in the world of modern horror films. I recently saw the new adaptation of Stephen King’s It, and whilst I loved the film, five minutes in and I’m watching a clown with monster teeth eating a child in a storm drain. This didn’t take place anywhere near the real world, and so there was inevitably an immediate disconnect that reduced how impactful the scares might be. You could in no way say this about the opening scene of the Ritual, however.
We see the four men, Luke, Hutch Sam and Phil, as they go about their hiking holiday, some more willingly than others. One of the key plot points is the mixed feelings about Luke’s inaction when their friend Robert was killed in the opening robbery scene. None of them say it out loud (at least not yet), but the event has clearly scarred the friendship of the group. And that’s a tangible feeling as you watch them interact. The banter and camaraderie never seems far from awkwardness and tension. All of this added to the feeling that I was watching something real, set right here in the same world that I occupy.
It doesn’t take long for the holiday to take a turn for the negative, either, and then all those emotions start to pour out. It’s a wonderful observation of Britishness, particularly amongst men, that we don’t just talk shit out. We smile and have a pint and wait for the whole thing to blow over. Except it doesn’t, of course. Some things need to be talked about, however difficult, and the mounting tension of the holiday’s mishaps forces a verbal confrontation that damages the friendships within the group further. I thought this was particularly realistic, once again. Anyone who’s ever been on a hiking holiday, or exerting daytrip or anything of the sort, knows how quickly it can all turn sour. All it takes is one person wearing the wrong shoes and complaining about their feet two hours into it, or having forgotten to bring enough water, and the friendly banter becomes vicious sniping, all egged on by tiredness and cold. The guys in The Ritual portray this fact perfectly. Frankly the trip starts to seem like a bit of a nightmare before the scary stuff even happens.
When it does make itself known, the ‘horror’ element of the film keeps itself as close to being realistic as it can for a good long while. I can imagine finding a creepy cabin in the woods, completely with a bizarre effigy of an unknown creature, and yet still opting to spend the night there rather than out in the storm. This is the real world, after all; monsters don’t exist. Despite jokes to the contrary, none of the characters (at this stage) actually think there’s anything in those woods beyond a bear or hunters or inbred hicks. Certainly nothing supernatural. Because why would you think that?
The slow, deliberately subtle and ‘held off’ appearance of the monster thrilled me. When you actually see the design, which I won’t describe, it’s beautiful. It looks like nothing I’ve ever seen in a horror film before, which I was ecstatic about. Usually they just look like a “Beautiful People” era Marilyn Manson these days, so a refreshing change was welcome. The explanation of its origins was also suitably vague. I like vagueness in my horror. The convenient discovery of a book or computer file or other maguffin that explains everything always takes the magic out of it. In The Ritual we get enough to steer us in the direction intended, and account for some of the supernatural abilities the creature seems to exhibit (it’s not just a mindless beast like a Bigfoot or something), but without going into a full backstory for it. That would have ruined it, so I found this to be a wise decision.
I was expecting to be annoyed by the presence of the ‘backwoods crazies’, even if they weren’t American hicks in this instance. I find them to be an annoying trope, whether they’re in adventure films or horror. They’re often just something for the characters to shoot at or hit when the CGI budget is being saved for a few scenes of not having the monster in. Like a videogame where the big boss backs away and you’re forced to endure minions for a few minutes until he pops back down into the arena. That wasn’t the case here, though. The story of these people wasn’t exactly explored in depth, but nor did it need to be. As with the monster itself, we got given enough to steer us where we needed to be. The revelation that these people didn’t actually ‘worship’ the thing in the modern loving sense of the word, but rather did so out of pure fear like the Old Testament meaning of the word was a nice surprise. Once again it made everything so much more realistic. A bunch of people in the woods worshipping a monster instead of going out into the world and resuming their nice normal lives makes a lot more sense when you realise it’s not done entirely through their own free will and adoration of the beast.
I won’t go into the ending because I don’t want to give that away, but I found it very satisfying. I really did not know where it was going to end up. This didn’t feel like the sort of film where the ‘hero’ would suddenly arm himself to the teeth and fight back against the previously-invincible monster (it’s not an American film) but nor would I have liked if the characters had all just died horribly and we’d ended on a dropped camera or something as with so many other horror films set in the woods. This film needed a better ending than that. Something a little stronger, but also not completely unlikely given what we’d seen so far. And I liked what we got. I wasn’t sure that I did, at first. But the more I thought about it, the more I was happy with that round off. I would actually quite like to watch the film again now, knowing where it goes, as I suspect there are signs pointing to this before it gets there and I’d like to spot them.
So in closing, go and see this film. I’ve been recommending it to people all week since watching it, both as a good film in general but also as a good example of horror done well. It’s not trying to reinvent the wheel, it’s not overly complicated and there’s no pretention to it, it just tells an engaging story very well.