Five blokes in their thirties – Luke (Rafe Spall), Robert (Paul Reid), Dom (Sam Troughton), Phil (Arsher Ali) and Hutch (Rob James-Collier) – meet in a pub to talk about an upcoming lads’ trip, with the outdoorsy Robert proposing a walk in the Swedish woods while the others are more inclined to go boozing and roistering in Amsterdam. However, a quick detour into tragedy in an off-license – as Luke and Rob walk into a robbery in progress – leads to the four surviving guys heading off to Sweden (played by Romania) in their mate’s memory. This ritual of memory, with suppressed recriminations and a heavy dose of survivor guilt, segues into a ritual of genre as, on the way back to their digs, pudgy Dom twists his ankle and the gang decide to take a short-cut through some ominous woods, where lurk malign forces sporting antlers who are given to leaving disembowelled animals hung from trees and a simple couple of hours’ hike turns into an ordeal that extends to several nights.
‘There’s no such thing as a short cut,’ someone says, too late for it to be of any use – ‘it were really a short cut it wouldn’t be called a short cut it would be called a route’. The laddish set-up, an archetypal bit of business that evokes The World’s End or Last Orders, shades soon into dark stuff that touches on Deliverance, Southern Comfort, The Blair Witch Project and many other walk-in-the-woods horror movies (including the similarly-named Rituals). Luke, played with pale and quiet conviction by Spall, is the quivering reed who hid behind a rack of drinks while his best friend was being bludgeoned, not stepping up to fight though he had a weapon to hand in a vodka bottle.
As the nightmare intensifies, he keeps stepping back into that everyday bad scenes – a parallel to a similar key incident in the very different British film Daphne – and beating himself up about it, even as he loses more friends and someone does finally have a go at him for being a coward. Many of the rules of the sub-genre are adhered to – the person most competent to get them out of the woods is the first casualty, a seemingly abandoned cabin in the middle of nowhere is as unwise a choice of stopover as the witch’s gingerbread house, runes carved in the trees are unhelpfully ominous, and it’s a dead cert that local religious practices incline more to He Who Walks Behind the Rows (or, here, Trees) than Christianity.
Adam Nevill’s source novel has a different rationale for its threat, but the script by Joe Barton (iBoy) whips up a creepy cult of sacrifice-happy Swedes – including a punchable old hag, a bald goon, a sad woman and several beardy extras – and a monster which seems to have some kinship to the wendigo of Larry Fessenden’s films. Most of the film just affords glimpses of the antlered, towering woodland preadtor/deity, but daringly it comes out in the open for the climax and doesn’t seem like a let-down. The Ritual drops hints about what the beast’s worshippers get out of the deal, but leaves enough horribly vague and suggested – there has been a minor blip of Nordic mythical monstrosity in recent cinema (Thale, Troll Hunter, Rare Exports), and this adds a rogue Jotun, supposedly a bastard son of Loki (though not very like the apocalypse wolf Fenrir), to the pantheon.
The in-group bantz are well-played by a good British cast, with each of the gang getting a few distinctive bits before the horror starts and then dragged along their own individual road to a gruesome fate when the scary stuff goes into overdrive. Directed by David Bruckner (Southbound), who was one of the co-directors of The Signal (2007), along with Dan Bush, who has also come out with a more conventional horror movie this year (The Vault).