Fans of horror literature have likely encountered Adam Nevill’s work. His novel The Ritual, a combination of occult fantasy and survival horror, has been ripe for adaptation since its release the better part of a decade ago. Few modern directors are better suited for the job than David Bruckner, the man behind the infamous surgery segment in Southbound. When it premiered in TIFF’s Midnight Madness section, early reactions gave no indication that Bruckner had returned to the feature scene with a debut of mythical power, but his faithful adaptation of Nevill’s novel revives the folk horror sub-genre to give us one of the year’s most terrifying films.
The setup is deceptively simple, with four friends embarking on a hiking trip through Sweden in honor of their deceased fifth member. When one of them twists an ankle, they make a mistake that may cause a few eye-rolls: they take a shortcut through the woods. Occult symbols, bizarre sounds, and the threat of a distant predator stalk them, but as the group goes farther and their sanity degenerates into paranoia, they begin to realize the immensity of their hunter.
A spoiler-free description of the story sounds clichéd, and it easily could have become so in the wrong hands. Considering his harrowing Southbound segment, however, it’s no surprise that David Bruckner handles the material brilliantly. Once Bruckner kicks off the horror, he sustains it, escalating each scene with both external and psychological terror until its fantastical conclusion. His approach to supernatural horror recalls classics like Cat People and The Abominable Snowman, films in which distant sounds and shadows hint at an incomprehensible threat rather than simply pointing the camera at a monster. Unlike these films, however, the mythology here is unique and impressively true to actual tradition.
With its game cast—led by the ever-compelling Rafe Spall—and intelligent craftsmanship, The Ritual elevates itself. The cinematography takes advantage of the earthen setting, paired with a score that generates primal dread from the first scene. The true stunner of the film is its production and creature design, however. One challenge of Nevill’s novel is his ambiguous description of the folkloric antagonist. Films centered around monsters often lose momentum when the monster appears. Bruckner does not allow this to happen—the final moments reach a level of fantasy that pays off its monstrous promises in a frightening way without betraying his style.
The film’s true terror comes from its setting, however—even without monsters, being lost in the woods is a horrifying scenario. The characters display the psychological trauma of this experience in a visceral manner, but Bruckner understands the broader power of that isolating dread. Like Nevill’s novel, the film feels deeply tied to the legacy of Algernon Blackwood, the master of nature-based cosmic horror. This story doesn’t explore anything revelatory or new, but Bruckner forces the audience to believe it, acknowledging the edges of the earth that humanity can’t cross.
By insisting on strong performances and artful craftsmanship, Bruckner uses horror film language to its utmost effectiveness. The film doesn’t reinvent its tropes, but it reminds us why they can be so entertaining. Bruckner is an essential voice in modern horror, and his new feature displays all of his strengths. Its primitive horror and authentic mythology draw the audience into the forest and allows them to get lost in a place where monsters wait.
Movie Score: 4/5
In case you missed it, check here to read more of our coverage of the 2017 Sitges Film Festival.