Summer of Horror: The Ritual Just on the right side of middle of the road

As the Netflix juggernaut continues its lumbering path of decimation through the traditional film distribution world, one of their recent habits has been gobbling up movies from major studios that were already set for theatrical release – but for whatever reason were seen as risky or undesirable – and branding them as Netflix Originals. These are usually “‘tweeners” (films that don’t have an immediate, obvious draw to a specific demographic), or non-franchise projects without big names attached, or even just movies that kind of suck and don’t have confident executives backing them. Just recently, Andy Serkis’ dark Jungle Book adaptation Mowgli was pulled from the release schedule like two months before opening in theaters, and shuttled over to Netflix.

The Ritual, as you might have guessed by now, is one such movie. So it begs the question: Why did this become a Netflix Original? After seeing it, I’m pleased to report that it does not suck, nor would I really see it as a ‘tweener. What it is is an R-rated non-franchise horror film without any big name stars or a prominent director. Maybe if it were just slightly better, A24 might have picked it up, given it the ol’ “prestige horror” hype treatment, and by now we’d be discussing it in the same breath as The Witch and Hereditary.

The only downside is, it’s not quite good enough for the A24 label. Close, but no cigar. 

Four long time buddies embark on an isolated hiking/camping trip in the wilds of Sweden and end up lost in a forbidding forest on the way back. And the woods are hiding something sinister; possibly supernatural. I love simple setups like this. And this is 100% true: at one point early in the film, I caught myself grinning madly like the Cheshire Cat over a perfect camera shot. As the group makes the questionable decision to wait out the night inside an ominous abandoned cabin, as night falls the camera slowly zooms in through the trees, focusing on the decrepit front door. A shot like that is a promise: a promise that terrible shit is about to go down.

And yes, terrible shit does indeed happen, and the payoff for what exactly we’re dealing with in these woods is quite satisfying. But for some reason, it falls just a hair short of being awesome. I can’t really put my finger on it. The acting and character work is sound, the suspense builds and releases at the right intervals, and the visuals are suitably creepy. Something about the film just feels minor, like it could have been a Black Mirror episode if technology had any place in this story.

All that being said, as I work through this year’s Summer of Horror marathon, running on about 50% energy as I do these days, I’ve found that I’m drawn to streaming, tight 90 minute horror movies, for obvious reasons. I swapped this title in late, and it will probably take the place of one of the longer entries on my list, I’m sorry to say. But it’s a nice, solid, “lost in the woods” flick, and coming off of The Boy, it was a welcome palette cleanser.

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