Film Review | That cabin in the woods again...

A group of college friends reunite and go for a trip in the forest, but encounter a menacing presence in the woods that's stalking them • 3/5

From left: Robert James-Collier, Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali and Sam Troughton in the unoriginal but perfectly serviceable slice of folk horror
From left: Robert James-Collier, Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali and Sam Troughton in the unoriginal but perfectly serviceable slice of folk horror

There’s a comfort in the familiar, even if that familiarity involves brutal murder. And given that it’s Halloween weekend, it’s only right that we give a fair hearing to what is likely to be the only worthwhile horror film worth seeing at the cinemas right now – David Bruckner’s adaptation of the acclaimed Adam Nevill novel, The Ritual. 

Yes, the setup may be familiar enough, but it all plays out so well that you’ll be glad for the film’s lack of narrative and formal ambition. Narrowly sliding into the sub-genre we could call ‘folk horror’ – of which perhaps Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) is king, and to which Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) is a more-than-worthwhile modern iteration – The Ritual finds four British “lads” (the adjective may never be more appropriate) hiking their way through the mountains on the Sweden-Norway border... but only because it would have been the holiday of choice for their late friend Rob (Paul Reid), who was brutally murdered by shoplifters six months prior, while Luke (Rafe Spall) did nothing to prevent it, cowering as he was behind the counter of the off-licence shop they were visiting on that fateful night. 

Determined to have fun despite only really being there to honour Rob’s memory, Luke and the rest of the group – made up of the resourceful Hutch (Robert James-Collier), the whiny Dom (Sam Troughton) and the nervy Phil (Arsher Ali) – hit a stumbling block when XX is injured. Deciding to take a risky short-cut, the group is forced to spend a stormy, disorienting evening in an abandoned wooden hut. Which may not turn out to be abandoned after all. Obscure pagan relics that litter the surroundings are amusing to the group at first. But when they lead to evocative nightmares for all the foursome – with poor Luke being forced to relive the guilt-inducing murder of his friend – they start to suspect they may just have stumbled onto something they won’t be able to hike their way out of.

Adapting Nevill’s source novel from a script by Joe Barton – a novel which has, since its publication in 2011, garnered significant praise and helped catapult Nevill into the upper-division of contemporary horror writers – Bruckner concentrates on putting together a rural chiller that lulls you into following it along by first establishing a relatable group camaraderie, while also framing the ensuing horrors against the backdrop of Luke’s trauma and guilty conscience.

Thankfully, while their dynamic certainly taps into a general stereotype of British masculinity, it never veers into unpleasant territories of chauvinism and/or misogyny, allowing us to empathise with them just enough to keep us engaged once the horror starts to pile on in earnest.

Fatal regrets: Rafe Spall
Fatal regrets: Rafe Spall

It’s a shame, then, that Rafe Spall’s performance remains blank-eyed all the way through, given how XX is the only real character of the lot with a defined character arc. It’s also something of a shame that, while his guilt is introduced as a facet to be explored, Bruckner and Barton never quite manage to link it up to the titular ‘ritual’ in question – and they very easily could have. 

Still, this film remains an engaging watch, particularly once the ‘big bad’ is revealed. Teased to breaking point with slow burn that would have made ‘Jaws’-era Spielberg blush, the creature that stalks our characters is a marvellous hybrid creation whose figurine reproductions – if indeed there will be any – deserve to adorn many a horror fan’s mantlepiece.

Wasting no time or effort in coming up with something original, The Ritual will nonetheless serve as the perfect slice of Halloween weekend entertainment. The beats are familiar, but none of them are off-key, with Bruckner ramping up the dread to breaking point while peppering the journey with some well-timed laughs. If Muschietti’s IT remake gave us Hollywood blockbuster mainstream horror done right, this is the British counterpart: keeping it safe and playing to the genre’s strengths, but giving us all a satisfying experience at the other end.