by Deryn O’Sullivan
A modern riff on the ancient Slavic tale of Baba Yaga, The Ritual may be indicative of one of the many cultural side-effects of Britain’s communal Brexit anxiety: the continued, hastening interest in folk horror stories and mainstream adaptation of folk imagery; paranoid tales of the occult, of dark forests, threatening hags and corrupted villagers, the kind of cabbalistic campfire fodder that chills to the core. Not lightly, The Ritual treads in the footsteps of these and other genre conventions, reminding us of The Wicker Man, The Blair Witch Project, and The Village, with a dash of Severance.
Haven’t we seen it all before?
What’s really scaring us?The Ritual; dir: David Bruckner; UK 2017, 94 mins. Our rating: ★★★★/5
The decision of 52% of the British people to leave the European Union last June may yet be recorded historically as the catalyst for a great many negative outcomes in futures near and far; polls as recent as September suggest that should a second referendum be held, the result would swing firmly in the opposite direction, with 52% of people now choosing to vote Remain. It seems clear that Brexit has wrought a buyers remorse amongst millions of Leave voters. Maybe it’s the constant lurking threat of impending economic doom, or the failure of government to clarify its longer-term aims and positions following the vote; maybe we should be paying more attention to the massive, terrifying increase in racist hate crime; according to Al-Jazeera, between 2015 and 2016, there were 62,518 reported offences. In 2017, that number rose to 80,393. We’re not even at the end of October.
Britain is drowning itself in the after-effects of hatred and self-doubt; a nation more than capable of introspecting over sport, television, and the weather, yet, the retrospective guilt and Brexit-induced depression many Britons now feel over Brexit – over not doing enough to prevent such an obviously self-defeating piece of legislation – manifests a sense of fear that will live on in the national psyche for generations to come. For some, it will motivate; for others, it will paralyse.
Superfluous as it is to suggest a cultural benefit to our collective state of post-referendum trauma, we nevertheless begin to see a correlation between current British anxiety, and a current revival of Britain’s interest in folk music, folk imagery, and, today, folk horror. A natural side-effect of any great national trauma is that creators and artists tend to look to figure out what happened, to shine a light across, and see what’s the behind the shadows.
It is against the backdrop of communal regret, our reactive need for introspection, and the historically British trait of going where we are not particularly wanted, that David Bruckner’s latest film The Ritual may be best observed.
The Ritual starts in pleasingly efficient fashion, with some light-hearted pub-based banter between five former university pals who’ve all grown up and gone on to various levels of success in the real world; the guys are planning their next lads holiday, suggesting Amsterdam, amongst others; we assume all five of them will be our protagonists for at least some of the next ninety-four minutes. This is not the case.
One of the friends – Robert – is mugged during a botched robbery. Luke (Rafe Spall) senses danger and hides. Fearful and gripping a bottle of vodka in defence, Luke stays hidden. Seconds later, Robert is attacked and instantly killed.
We rejoin the four remaining friends some months later, reunited and camping out in the Swedish wilderness. They didn’t make it to Amsterdam; here they are instead, on some kind of overtly manly trip into the Swedish hinterlands, and Bear Grylls-style character-building endurance, camping in low temperatures and hiking across harsh terrain. A subtle hint of the strangeness to come occurs when one of the guys pours out a flask of vodka in honour of their absent friend, which takes an unusually long time to run out in to the cold grass. A second or two longer than what we’d expect. One of the group – Dom – twists a knee on the way across a rocky steppe; the first signs of conflict emerge. Pressing on, they head across the plains towards their planned final destination, a warm lodge on the border of Sweden and Norway. Tentatively led by Hutch (Robert James-Collier), the most adventurous of the lot, Dom’s bad knee (an old meniscus injury, he revels in pointing out) gives out. After some arguing, and the early reveal of lingering bitterness towards Luke over Robert’s death, the group decides to take an improvised short-cut through a dark forest.
Once inside the forest and away from the comfort of the open sky, we’re hammered by the feeling of coldness and utter isolation. The hue changes from Insta-friendly blue skies and lush greens to black night, grey trees, and green stones, Tall, ancient trees loom down. Beaten paths don’t exist, and the boys are trespassing on some unknown boundary – felt, not seen – wherever they step; emergent paths feel placed to ensnare rather than guide.
Something is wrong; a minimalist score adds to an already tense atmosphere.
A rickety house, covered in weird symbols, provides the only opportunity for shelter during a stormy first night, and the first of fleeting glances of whatever night-terror is stalking the group.
A super aspect of The Ritual is the Cloverfield-like dedication to not showing us more than we need to see at any one time; rather, we feel our way through the imposing woods with the rest of the group. We know they’re the victims, and we know there’s a threat; we just can’t predict where it will come from or in what order it will pick them off.
Deaths, when they do occur, are as cold as the setting. We’re as helpless to watch as the boys are terrorised and paralysed by fevered dreams and forces they cannot possibly hope to comprehend, let alone combat. They suffer humiliation of having their demonstrative masculine pride torn down to size; the monster knows how to hurt them. The attention to genre-specific nuance is a major strength of The Ritual, and serves it well throughout.
Whilst giving us a strong sense of the ancient lore the boys have unwittingly subjected themselves to, it never forgets to entertain. A final showdown is inevitable, and The Ritual’s writer Joe Barton gives us to want them to fight back; we beg them to be brave and throw caution to the wind. Defensive action is not enough; they must attack or die; peppered with the uncertainty of feeling they may not be up to the task, the pay-off is a satisfying, visceral final act with real emotional clout.
Despite obvious parallels to previous genre entries, The Ritual is lifted by intense lead performances, particularly an in-form Rafe Spall: the end result is an effective, old-fashioned horror full of paranoia-inducing moments and alarmingly creepy twists.
There is, though, a painfully prescient message in the subtext: in an increasingly bleak and violent world, with terrorism on the rise, acts of racism rapidly increasing, the dark shadow of Brexit, Trump, and others looming in the foreground, The Ritual would seem to be an allegorical call to action. Like the characters in the film, Britain must learn to face its regret over past mistakes, and cope with the ongoing consequences. It is no longer enough to stare back at the abyss – we must find our courage now, and scream in its face.