David Bruckner’s The Ritual is a sturdy, if derivative, horror film set mostly in northern Sweden, along the 270-mile King’s Trail, or Kungsleden. Four college friends have traveled there on a lads holiday to honor a fifth, recently murdered during a liquor store robbery. Early on, one character asks if the trail is like the Appalachian. “Yeah,” says another, “apart from it’s more history than hillbillies.” This feels like a subtle knock at The Blair Witch Project, the genre precursor that this film most resembles, and which was set in a strip of Maryland forest through which the Appalachian trail passes. The Ritual, based on the novel by Adam Nevill, is besieged with strange happenings, including Runic-like symbols carved onto trees (rather than built out of twigs), but it spoils its tension by elaborating on the nature of the evil—more godlike and primeval than a mere American witch—that plagues the four friends.
The trouble for these men begins when, while footslogging, the emotionally weakest, Dom (Sam Troughton), twists his ankle. The group’s de facto leader, Hutch (Rob James-Collier), suggests that they cut their two-day march back to the lodge down to one by improvising a shortcut through the woods. It’s a familiar mistake made by the characters in these sorts of films, and they’ll make several more, including deviating from their determined course yet again. But you can forgive Nevill and screenwriter Joe Barton because Bruckner creates an eerie and steadily intensifying atmosphere, established not through jump scares, but withheld visual information, creepy discoveries, and badly boding omens. Tracking shots of the thin trees and perpetually crepuscular landscape set the uneasy mood.
Not that the film is exactly subtle. The first warning about the unusual danger that these woods pose is an elk, gutted and mounted like a butterfly up in the trees—not exactly the m.o. of your standard Scandinavian bear. Slowed down afterward by a storm, the men discover an empty cabin, where Phil (Asher Ali) finds a sort of pagan icon made of antlers, bark, and branches occupying an upstairs room; everyone sleeps on the first floor and each has a disorienting nightmare. Our protagonist, Luke (Rafe Spall), relives the murder of their friend, Robert (Paul Reid)—which he witnessed while hiding behind the liquor store’s shelving unit, filling him with guilt and shame—as he does throughout the film, entering a recurring psychic space that’s half forest and half store, half remembered and half real. We don’t see anyone else’s dreams that night, just the even-more-frightening disorientation they experience in the morning: the put-together Hutch has pissed his pajamas, Dom howls in a corner, and Phil supplicates naked before the cabin’s homespun idol.
The Ritual builds tension well for a while, as the stress and mystery of the situation intensifies the already strained relationships of the men, who’ve grown apart as post-university life has evolved into an adulthood of wives and children—and at least one of the friends blames Luke for Robert’s bludgeoning. Their characters are tested in extremis as they navigate a psychotopography of terror and disgrace, stalked and picked off by an ancient Nordic god. But the film’s aura dims in its final third, as the filmmakers reveal the secrets they’d previously withheld, spoiling the sustained mystique. (They’re particularly clumsy when they introduce a character in the remote, almost untouched Swedish wilderness who conveniently speaks some English, which she uses to supply exposition.) Most disappointingly, the film climaxes with a lamely macho message about becoming a man by learning to fight—in this case, by standing up to a baddie much, much more intimidating than some junkie with a pipe holding up a liquor store.