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There is an emerging sub-genre of films that focus on tourism, travel, and fear of the unknown. Ever since the 1897 publication of Dracula, horror has explored the paranoia of the outsider. Stoker’s novel shows this by contrasting the civilized English against the foreign Count. I would say the movie that pioneered this genre today would be Eli Roth’s Hostel, with films like Midsommar following in its footsteps. Hostel and Midsommar focus on American tourists who go to Europe and encounter people who are cruel, but Hostel uses the idea that the American tourists are equally monstrous. They are disrespectful to the culture that they are entering. Hostel isn’t trying to make a point that the tourists deserve what happens to them but is in a way saying that you reap what you sow. Both films suggest that you have to be careful no matter what; it behooves one to have an abundance of caution.
David Bruckner’s 2017 film The Ritual focuses on a group of friends from England who enter Sweden on a hike to honor their deceased friend and instead come across a cult that is devoted to a creature called a Jötunn. Again, the movie doesn’t advocate that the characters deserve to be punished, but they disobey the rules. It is a twist of fate that propels the characters on their journey, but still they diverge from the path, and they put themselves in danger. There is something kind of poetic about the fact that the creature is a Norse deity worshiped by the locals, and the characters are seen as invaders. The Jötunn demands to be revered. It is more like an animal than a human being. It doesn’t function on morality. It follows its instincts, and in this way the film continues to be a cautionary tale about respect.
Horror is only as good as the human drama behind it, and The Ritual is one of the best horror movies I’ve seen to date because of that. Part of that is the incredible performances of the actors, who play the characters so naturally that it makes the film all the more believable. What starts out as a drama about a group of old friends growing apart becomes a horror story as they try to survive in an unforgiving landscape, pursued by something that wants them dead. While on a lads’ night out at the beginning of the movie, the friend group says that it’s getting harder to have a good time together. This theme is made more effective as the narrative focuses on the tension between the characters, who all blame Luke (played by Rafe Spall) for their friend Robert’s death, because he hid when Rob was mugged and murdered. The film then goes from exploring survivor’s guilt to literal survival when the group gets hunted and murdered by the Jötunn.
Things go from bad to worse when the group’s de facto leader, Hutch, is killed by the creature. I found this decision to be really interesting because Hutch comes off as the most competent, the most heroic, but the movie focuses on Luke, who is the least pure character. Hutch keeps the friends together, even when their nerves are frayed, and when he dies the tension is heightened even further. Luke has to make a transition into being the group’s leader even though he is still coping with his guilt, which makes him an unlikely candidate. Even Dom, the crankiest of the friends, is the least corrupt because he wasn’t there when Rob was murdered. Luke’s guilt and his responsibility in Rob’s death makes him a flawed hero.
I see the film as an examination of the stages of grief. As the characters descend into the woods, they all express different ways of dealing with loss, such as anger, fear, and – for Luke – guilt. When they are in denial about their creepy circumstances, it symbolizes how they are going through the denial phase of grief. By the end, Luke has reached acceptance, even though he has lost everyone. Perhaps in a more Hollywood-type ending, Luke would have saved his friends and thus overcome his shame, but instead he recognizes that you can’t save everyone; there are forces outside of his control.