Monday, June 4, 2018

Film Review - The Ritual

Netflix is known for some quality television programming. Many shows the network has produced have been good, and in some cases they've been great. Think Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, Stranger Things, Bloodline, Mindhunter, Black Mirror and on and on and on. Simultaneously, Netflix is also known for some real film flops. Think The Cloverfield Paradox, Bright, The Do-Over, The Ridiculous Six, and on and on and on.

Essentially, the network's original contents trends toward quality television, and away from quality film. Certainly there are exceptions to this rule. And indeed, the Netflix original film, The Ritual, is an exception. It's not a great movie. It doesn't stand out. But it's not bad either...


Four men from England journey into the hills of Sweden on what appears to be a popular high trail. When one member of the group becomes injured, the team decides to cut down off the ridgeline and into a thick ancient forest. The idea is that if they make their way through the forest, they will finish the trail faster. The problem is that the forest is haunted by some kind of inhuman monster, as well as by a death cult that worships the beast. The combination of these two things makes their shortcut mildly longer than expected...

I personally can't imagine taking someone who is injured off trail through a forest, even if it looked to be a shorter distance. In real life, once the team realized that going straight through the forest means climbing over and under logs all day, it's likely they would have given up on that strategy.

There are many problematic elements to The Ritual. It's not always a good movie, but it's creepy enough, with just enough of a Blair Witch style feel to it to keep you engaged. For example, Luke -- the film's lead character played by Rafe Spall -- lost a friend to a burglar at a convenience store, while he hid safely behind a rack of chips. Luke is haunted by this. And the monster in the woods torments him with memories of the robbery. Indeed, there are some incredible sequences where Luke is half in the primeval forest with some kind of horrible beast nearby and half under the garish lights of the store, dealing with the loss of a friend by the hand of a different kind of beast. These splits in the character's reality are nightmarish and provide the viewer with a creeping sense of dread.

It's unfortunate that the other characters aren't provided with a similar depth. We know they're also tormented by the monster. But we really don't know what their torments are.

For the outdoor adventurer, there are a handful of "don't-do-this" type lessons in the film. These lessons are exagerated. There is no question about it. If you read this blog, you probably wouldn't do what these guys do at the level they do it at. But you (and I) might do one or more of these things at a more subtle level and that makes it interesting...

The story starts with a major screw-up. A team of amature backpackers don't have any type of communication equipment that works in the backcountry, so after a minor injury, they leave the trail. Some weird stuff happens at night after they're in the woods; you know, stuff like one guy waking up to find that he's naked, covered in blood and worshiping a statue of a straw elk-man hybrid. A bunch of weird things happen to other people too, but instead of retreating back to the trail (which they should have done), or even continuing to follow their compass bearing (which isn't as good as retracing their way back to the trail, but better than what they do), the team decides to follow the least rational member of the party down a faint trail deeper into the forest. In the real world of outdoor adventure, we call this the consistency or commitment heuristic. Sometimes we make a bad mistake and then just go with it until there's an accident. Sometimes when someone seems to know what they're doing -- or in this case someone seems super committed to one action -- the rest of the team follows that person, even when they know it's the wrong thing to do.

In a horror movie, we expect people to die. It's worth remembering, that these heuristic traps can lead to real-life horror too. Committing to a mistake is unlikely to lead you into a haunted forest, but it could lead you into avalanche terrain. And blindly following a leader that is making a bad choice, could also lead you into a situation that requires a rescue...



I wish that filmmakers would put weight into prop backpacks, so that actors could feel what it's like to carry a pack. Instead, many movies that take place in the backcountry seem fake from the start. In this film, one character never buckled his waist belt. Another's pack rode so high that there was significant visible air between his shoulders and the straps. Actors in backcountry films are often supposed to look tired, but using packs full of newspapers or whatever is in there, makes them look goofy.

It's worth noting that the monster -- when we finally see it in this movie -- is pretty cool. Indeed, it might be one of the cooler movie monsters to come out recently. I don't want to describe it in detail. It is actually well worth waiting for, and could be a good reason to watch this film in and of itself.

The Ritual is a strong enough entry into the backcountry horror genre to get a thumbs up. But it's a weak thumbs up. I wouldn't recommend it if it were in the theatre. But it's well worth a watch on Netflix...

--Jason D. Martin




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