Like the lives of your most out-of-your-league high school crushes, hauntings in movies tend to get less interesting the more their essence gets revealed. Their early excitement — that sense of the unearthly made manifest in your presence; the possibilities that might set your heart pounding — tends to curdle once the specifics become clear. Eventually, the unknowable shows itself as familiar, even disappointing. “Oh,” you might finally say, at the movies, “it’s just that kind of haunting.” And, “Oh,” you might finally say in high school, “he or she is actually just that kind of person.” The depth and connection you’re seeking just may not be there.
I bring up past heartache because David Bruckner’s The Ritual, a promising-at-the-start and always-at-least-diverting pagan scare extravaganza hitting Netflix this week, is that kind of horror film. The kind where, after you’ve dreamed along with the harrowed protagonists through effective scenes of portents and weirdness, the lead character suddenly must confront that most depleting of boogeymen: the entirely earthly backstory, complete with traumatized flashbacks that must be wandered through like a haunted basement.
The Ritual finds a quartet of British lads/drips hiking through the deserted woods of northern Sweden, a labyrinth of ancient trees with trunks that stretch up forever, naked except for short snarled branches and, on occasion, the impaled carcass of a sacrificial beast. Freaked out but still insisting to one another everything will be fine, the lads elect to bash open the door of a decrepit cabin and spend the night there. Then, as the film’s sound team lays in some masterfully unsettling wind and creaks, the heroes double down on dooming themselves by splitting up — one steps out to pee, while another ventures upstairs, into a dark attic. Each of the mates makes a shivery discovery as the filmmakers crosscut between the scare scenes, teasing us with what’s behind a door or just beyond the radius of a flashlight. Bruckner excels at staging and timing glimpses of things that shouldn’t be there, terrors between distant trees or deep in the shadows. This stretch of The Ritual is B-horror heaven.
But soon the revelations come. We get stuck watching lead lad Luke (Rafe Spall) confront his life’s worst moment, and whatever you’re imagining all this is building to is likely to improve upon the goofy drag that The Ritual actually offers. Bruckner is working from a novel by Adam Nevill that fleshes out its characters before tearing their flesh out. On the page, the absurd final sequences play more effectively than in the film, as the visions that Nevill conjures are your responsibility, given life by the interpretive and imaginative power of your reading mind. The visions that Bruckner and Co. actually get onscreen pale before what the book stirs from us. The impossible powers at play just look like undistinguished movie trickery.
That’s not unusual for adaptations of horror novels. But it disappoints here because The Ritual’s movie trickery is, at the level of craft and scares, often excellent. That’s most true when the movie holds close to the world as it actually is, a world that’s recognizably real yet corrupted at its edges. A nasty enchantment grips the forest, of course, but the filmmakers elect for a spare location-shot realism rather than heightened CGI-scapes. Those woods — mist-choked, wild yet curiously regimented, expansive yet claustrophobic — prove an unsettling backdrop even during the rote scenes of the boys yelling at one another over their grim choices and dark secrets. It’s a pleasure getting lost in them, even though the film itself is too streamlined ever to let us feel lost. The characters wander in baffling circles, but the story soldiers dutifully from beat to beat, scare to scare. It has this going for it — when it comes to offing its characters, The Ritual proves more pitiless than you might expect for a film that has this tony a look.
Also effective: the handmade evidence of witchery that these dudes continually discover. The primitive stickmen and curious tree carvings suggest, of course, The Blair Witch Project, a movie whose irreproducible success was powered — like a novel — by your imaginative labor. If it scared you, it’s thanks to you filling in the shadows. The Ritual, too, on occasion achieves a tense and devilish power, leaving you in the dark with these guys trying to figure out what that thing can mean. In these moments, the forest seems wilder than it is, its roots the roots of ancient myth and the terrors of our forebears. Then the spell gets shattered, the flashbacks start, a humdrum monster arrives, and it’s clear this all truly connects to something much more contemporary: producers’ ideas of what makes good screenwriting.
The Ritual premieres February 9 on Netflix.