Directed by: David Bruckner
In writing, Stephen King puts forth the idea that horror works on three different tiers. We have shock value horror, which he calls the Gross-Out. This is the realm of the jump scare, the severed head, and Jason Voorhees with his cleaver mowing down campers. We have what King calls, perhaps not helpfully, The Horror, which is the undead zombie horde shambling around, the creature that lives in our closets, under our beds and in our heads, finally revealed to us in the flesh. And lastly, we have what he calls The Terror, and what I prefer to call, the Existential Threat. It’s the Lovecraftian revelation that everything we know about our lives is wrong. It’s the dawning fact, received only through time and reflection, that the eyes in the painting are following you; that not only do vampires exist, but they’ve been manipulating human history down the centuries; that we are not the chosen beneficiaries of a reflective, loving, patriarchal God, and are in fact the previously ignored, disregarded children of an indifferent and unknowable deity. And we are now in His radar. Merely average horror has one element, while horror that’s passable does two elements well, and good horror has all three in various capacities, while the best horror has all three front and centre.
The Ritual (2017) from director David Bruckner is good, but only barely. The first two elements are out in force, but you have to squint to see the third. It’s there, but barely.
Part of what constitutes a good horror story, like any story really, is characterization. We need relatable, easily identifiable characters with whom we can empathize, or else it falls flat. This is basic storytelling. It follows four friends from college who set out to pay homage to a friend who met with some rather graphic violence in the opening few scenes by heading out on a cross-country trip across Sweden. Inherent in the violence, if you look at it from the right perspective, is a hint of the third element of horror. The lives of these four men have been uprooted by a singular act of violence, just like any one of us could be at any moment. But there’s more. The writer of the original novel thought to use this moment of violence as a cornerstone towards character development, taking what could have been a humdrum, run-of-the-mill pseudo-Lovecraftian tale into the somewhat tired territory of the character study by drawing on the traumatic element of the violence for both dramatic and plot-related effects. If there’s anything positive to say about this return to basics style of storytelling, it’s that it isn’t botched, even if it is predictable and trite.
The movie itself makes up for it. The tourism board of Sweden should likely take notes – the cinematography is beautiful. The sparse soundtrack adds more than sufficiently to the natural development of tension. It’s well plotted, meeting all the timing benchmarks required for excellent horror. There is a lack of tiresome jump scares, the reveals are effective, and everything about the beastie at the end, from the CGI to the backstory, is well-presented and ultimately pretty cool.
That being said, the acting is the weakest part of this movie in that it’s neither remarkable nor unremarkable, and while there isn’t a standout performance there isn’t anything that seriously detracts from the story either. However, I’m not entirely sure that this is the fault of the actors. What I said above about characterization notwithstanding, this movie barely met the basic requirements. They’re four men with relatable experiences in a circumstance that we can readily understand and possibly see ourselves in. But that’s it. There’s no greater hint to any inner depth, beyond fears and difficulties, and no attempt at deeper characterization beyond what’s necessary for the story. Scratch the surface, and each of these four men are archetypes. They’re representations of men with no nuance, no substance and no life.
It’s this minimalist setup, so required in modern storytelling, that’s at fault here. In order to really drive home the notion of Existential Threat, the audience simply needed to know more about the internal lives of the characters. It’s a rare accomplishment in visual storytelling in general, and especially in the horror genre, with its budget focused on jump scares and special effects, and that’s why ultimately this movie is eminently forgettable, instead of good.