For the past decade, David Bruckner has occupied an unusual position in the film world: He reliably contributes the strongest segments in horror anthologies. Technically, The Signal (2007), his first effort, constitutes a single narrative; three different directors were in charge of the film’s three “transmissions” (read: acts), though, and it’s all downhill after Bruckner’s tense, unnerving introductory sequence. He subsequently helmed the most memorable short in 2012’s V/H/S (“Amateur Night,” the one about three bros covertly shooting a porn film who pick up the wrong woman in a bar; Bruckner executive-produced but did not direct Siren, the spin-off feature) and the most twisted short in 2015’s Southbound (“The Accident,” the one about the disgustingly gruesome accident). Alas, horror fans who’ve wondered what Bruckner might do with an entire movie of his own will be disappointed by his solo feature-length debut, The Ritual, which attempts to put a twist on the Blair Witch formula but demonstrates surprisingly little imagination.
Yes, it’s time once again to send a group of clueless but overconfident people into the woods to be stalked by something unholy. Adapted from Adam Nevill’s 2011 novel, The Ritual kicks off with a tragic, decidedly non-supernatural prologue that sees an innocent bystander killed during a liquor store robbery. Six months later, the victim’s college buddies honor his memory by going hiking in Sweden—a group vacation that he’d suggested shortly before his death. When one of them (Sam Troughton) injures his leg, they decide to save time on the return journey by going off-trail, and promptly find themselves lost in the rain. There’s always an abandoned cabin or shack to offer shelter in these movies, though, and in this one, the lads discover, up in the attic, some sort of weird, pagan-looking idol. Nightmares that may or may not represent actual events ensue, followed by the usual spooky noises, unexplained disappearances, and pretty damn ominous portents, like the sight of an elk impaled on a tree branch high off the ground.
To Bruckner’s credit, he shoots this overly familiar tale classically, avoiding the genre’s shaky-cam clichés. He also eventually serves up a clearly visible monster, which proves satisfyingly fearsome. What attracted him to Nevill’s book in the first place, however, is unclear. Onscreen, the four buddies—Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, and Robert-James Collier play the others—are so bland as to be largely indistinguishable, and experience more or less the same beats of mounting anxiety seen in every scary-woods horror movie. Spall’s character, who saw his friend killed in the liquor store but was hiding and too scared to help, experiences multiple jagged flashbacks suggesting severe survivor’s guilt, but that additional psychological baggage never dovetails with the external horror in any significant way. The Ritual coincidentally shares certain elements with this year’s midnight Sundance sensation, Mandy, but is nowhere near as demented or singular. It’s just another formulaic booga-booga, achieving less in 95 minutes than its maker usually manages in 30.