Saturday, February 10, 2018

On Netflix: THE RITUAL (2018)

(UK - 2017; US release 2018)

Directed by David Bruckner. Written by Joe Barton. Cast: Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton, Paul Reid, Matthew Needham, Jacob James Beswick, Maria Erwolter, Hilary Reeves, Peter Liddell, Francesca Mula. (Unrated, 94 mins)

You can count on zero fingers the number of times "Let's just take the shortcut" ends well in a horror movie, and therein lies the primary dilemma with the Netflix Original film THE RITUAL: you've seen all of it before. Based on a 2011 novel of the same name by Adam Nevill and adapted by Joe Barton (iBOY), the British-made THE RITUAL is the first feature-length film by American director David Bruckner, best known for his contributions to the indie anthologies THE SIGNAL (2007), V/H/S (2012), and SOUTHBOUND (2016). Six months after their buddy Robert (Paul Reid) was killed after walking into a liquor store robbery, four old college friends--Luke (Rafe Spall), Phil (Arsher Ali), Hutch (Robert James-Collier), and Dom (Sam Troughton)--decide to follow-through on Robert's idea for their annual trip by going hiking through the wilderness of Sweden (played here by Romania). It's the usual male-bonding and ballbusting until Dom twists his ankle and they decide to veer from the mapped mountain path and take a shortcut through a dense forest. They quickly stumble on an abandoned VW ("Odd place to park," one of them quips), then trees with strange symbols carved into them, and finally a disemboweled elk carcass perched in the trees. Deciding they've gone too far to turn back and with Dom's ankle getting more difficult to walk on, they forge ahead. Of course, they get lost and a short trip turns into two nights of strange sounds, ominous visions, the discovery of a cabin with items strongly hinting at witchcraft, and other assorted tropes from the BLAIR WITCH manual. Hutch wakes up soaked in his own piss, Phil wanders off and can't remember why, and Luke finds the tree symbols painted on his chest. He's also haunted by a debilitating case of survivor's guilt: he's the one who wanted to buy more booze when the others wanted to call it a night, and he's the one who dragged Robert into the liquor store and then scurried to hide behind a display fixture while his friend was getting his head bashed in.

Though it's based on a relatively recent novel, there's no denying the initial surface similarities, starting with the title, to the 1978 Canadian survivalist cult classic RITUALS, where five doctor friends (led by Hal Holbrook and Lawrence Dane) go on an annual hiking excursion only to be stalked and killed one-by-one by a feral mountain man. Like RITUALS, THE RITUAL has the predicament bringing up long-festering resentments among the old friends, with Luke facing the gradual realization that the others more or less blame him for Robert's death (Dom does so outright). They also fulfill basic archetypes, among them Luke being--at least until Robert's tragic end--the party animal who never really grew up and Dom now the uptight family man who keeps whining that they should've gone to Vegas and is probably exaggerating his ankle injury. But THE RITUAL ultimately takes a more supernatural bent than RITUALS, with the men being stalked by some kind of demonic, horned creature (Bruckner stages a couple of creepily effective bits where the guys are walking through the forest and the creature is camouflaged at the edge of the frame or very deep into the shot) that's worshiped by some deep woods pagans who look like members of a Bucharest community theater troupe that just finished a re-enactment of SOUTHERN COMFORT and are beginning rehearsals for their interpretation of THE WITCH. There's also some WICKER MAN sacrificesploitation that was done to death long before Ben Wheatley ripped it off for KILL LIST. The actors aren't required to do much more than fill stock character roles, though Spall (PROMETHEUS), who resembles a worrisome Ryan Reynolds, seems convincingly anguished and guilt-ridden. Bruckner does a decent job establishing a foreboding sense of dread, but the familiarity, the plodding pacing and the predictable developments all lead to a blandly ho-hum conclusion.

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