There’s a long, proud heritage of ‘We’re lost in the woods being chased by something vaguely pagan that wants to kill us’ movies, and ‘The Ritual,’ director David Bruckner’s (Southbound) latest film slots neatly into that category.

Written by Joe Barton and Adam Neville (based on Nevill’s 2011 novel of the same name), ‘The Ritual’ opens with five aging university chums drinking on a weeknight and planning their next semi-regular lads getaway. There’s a bit of tension over where to go. Some are feeling a bit too old for the fleshpot resort scene, while others welcome it, and one, Rob (Paul Reid), fancies some outdoor adventure. The group’s good-natured ribbing is tinged with undercurrents of longstanding conflicts.

As the five leave the bar undecided about where to go, Rob and Luke, played by Rafe Spall (Shaun of the Dead), decide to pick up a bottle in a convenience store. When they stumble upon a robbery in progress, Luke cowers in the back and looks on as Rob is bludgeoned to death. And then there were four.

As a kind of tribute, the remaining comrades decide to follow Rob’s wishes and head out on a hiking trip in the wilds of Sweden. After erecting a memorial to Rob, and suffering through the kind of camping that only happens to city folks in the movies, one of the foursome (the heavy whiny one) turns a knee, and, predictably, forces them to take a shortcut through the forest.

It’s not long before they are mostly lost, except for the one with the compass, who insists he knows how to use it, but doesn’t. When the weather turns awful again, our heroes seek shelter in a Blair Witch-esque shack in the woods and find a pagan alter of sorts upstairs. They all go a bit mental in the night, to the point of literally wetting themselves. And, predicably, Luke’s nightmares take the form of flashbacks to his cowardice in the convenience store.

The next day’s tramp through the woods is punctuated with dead eviscerated animals hanging in the trees, and pagan/Nordic symbols carved in trees and buildings. That night the ‘creature that has been stalking decides to attack. And then there were three.

The following afternoon, the plot takes a nasty turn when another member of their group is taken (and then there were two), and it becomes clear that the creature is herding them towards something. Stumbling upon a pagan community in the woods, the remaining two are captured and prepared for sacrifice. One is offered up to the god thing in the woods, and Luke is left to escape and exact revenge, or join the cult. But in the end, he does neither, in a wild finish that is equal parts implausible and unsatisfying.

Though the story is a bit too cliché in places (even for genre horror), and the characters might as well be named “lads 1,2,3, and 4”, I have to give props to production designer Adrian Curelea (sorry I couldn’t resist that), for the design and execution of the pagan farm, and the consistently creative and haunting execution of the creature. Though we know it’s out there and can see it coming a mile away; it’s still a remarkably creepy sight when it finally does appear and is far and away the most effective part of the film.

Though the plot is a bit too easy to predict, and you’re mostly rooting for the characters to die, director David Bruckner and production designer Adrian Curelea provide some genuinely creepy images and chilling moments. So, for horror fans, and folks who want to be scared out of the woods, ‘The Ritual’ may be just ticket.

‘The Ritual’ opens in Irish cinemas on October 13th.

Review by Glenn Kaufmann, a Dublin-based freelance writer, and one of the founders of No-Budget, a show for independent filmmakers. Click on the link to discover more:
http://youtube.com/c/NoBudgetShow

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