There’s more than one way to die in the woods, although so far as horror-film narratives in that vein go, “The Blair Witch Project” has cast a bit too pervasive a shadow for nearly two decades now. Give “The Ritual” credit for feeling distinctly different from that model, even if this, too, is a story involving lost campers and some witchy doings. Beyond avoiding the whole found-footage device, David Bruckner’s first solo directorial feature (he was one of three helmers on 2017’s excellent “The Signal”) benefits from solid atmospherics that elevate a not-particularly-original conceit about four men encountering possibly supernatural menace while hiking in Northern Sweden.
In the end, the result may simply be a creditable cut above genre average. But it’s surely the best Yank-directed horror movie about English blokes terrorized by monsters in Romania-posing-as-Sweden that you’ll see this year. Joe Barton’s screenplay — adapted from Adam Nevill’s novel, and very different from the one he wrote for fellow Toronto premiere “My Days of Mercy” — begins with a lad’s night out for five 30-ish former university buds. But one has the ill luck to land in the middle of a liquor store robbery, and does not survive the experience. In his honor, the remaining quartet set out six months later on a hiking vacation in the Swedish mountains, precisely what Robert (Paul Reid) had proposed as their next group holiday.
They’re not particularly well-equipped temperamentally or otherwise for such non-alcoholic adventure. When least-athletically-inclined party Dom (Sam Troughton) suffers a knee injury, natural-leader-type Hutch (Robert James-Collier) proposes they abandon the planned route and cut through some wooded hills in order to get to a local lodge faster. Unfortunately, going off-trail proves a very bad idea. By nightfall they’re entirely lost in a driving rainstorm; they break into a decrepit, seemingly abandoned shack for shelter. No one is pleased to discover there’s some sort of creepy pagan idol in the attic, but they have no option beyond settling in until daybreak.
Alas, the sun rises to find they’ve all had traumatic “nightmares” of one sort or another. We only see the one suffered by Luke (Rafe Spall), who’s the most guilt-ridden by Robert’s death because he witnessed it but hid from the killers. Amiable Phil (Arsher Ali) is discovered naked and trembling before the aforementioned idol, with no idea how he got there. Hutch and Dom are severely shaken, too. Stress renders the group dynamic discordant just when they need to focus on a collective plan to regain civilization. Things only get worse, with no path seeming to lead out of a woods plagued by ominous tree markings and frightening creature noises, as well as the odd elk found gutted and impaled on branches 10 feet off the ground.
A second night spent out here reduces the protagonists’ number, confirming our protagonists’ worst fears that they are not alone — and that their nemesis may be something other than human. Later developments briefly get a little too “Kullarna Har Ogon,” i.e. “The Hills Have Eyes.” But while some may find climactic events (which make full use of hitherto-elusive creature FX) go over the top, they do so with sufficiently satisfying vigor. Providing some additional psychological and textural wrinkles throughout are increasingly surreal incorporations of imagery from the initial liquor-store horror.
Though well-cast and competently written, “The Ritual” owes its primary effectiveness not so much to story or character per se as to the unsettling atmosphere Bruckner and company have eked out of the forest itself. DP Andrew Shulkind’s impressive lensing often frames the actors dwarfed and dominated by oddly hostile-looking trees whose tops or bottoms we can’t see. They feel frighteningly infinite, and as entrapping as jail-cell bars. A fine complement to these landscapes and the action they contain is Ben Lovett’s attractively urgent original score.