One of my favorite movie genres is “friends take a trip.” Whether it’s a comedy like Girls Trip, a drama like Thelma & Louise, or even The Muppet Movie, a tale of friends traveling together provides the perfect canvas on which to set a fun, thrilling story.
But what happens when that archetypal journey collides with dark secrets and an ancient Nordic cult? That’s what this 2017 movie sets out to explore.
A Netflix Original, The Ritual is a 2017 horror-thriller directed by David Bruckner. Unlike the “friends trip” movies listed above, all of which star women (or Muppets), The Ritual follows five men planning a trip to the Swedish forest in order to reaffirm their close bond as friends. However, the same night they begin planning this expedition, the member of the group who first suggested the hike is killed during a liquor store robbery.
In the aftermath, the remaining four men proceed with the hike as a memorial to their lost friend. But a shortcut gone wrong leads them into dangerous territory, and soon there’s much more than just a ruined vacation at stake. As the friends become increasingly lost in the woods, they encounter a cult worshipping a horrific creature known as a Jotünn, a bastard child of Loki.
Nordic mythology is all the rage nowadays, between Netflix’s criminally underseen series Ragnarok, Marvel’s Loki, and Zack Snyder’s upcoming animated series Twilight of the Gods. It’s unclear just what makes this ancient belief system so appealing in 2021, but it’s worth considering how the unpredictability of Loki’s mischief resonates in a world where similarly unpredictable events shape the ways we live our lives.
“Horror works best when it’s tethered to real-world anxieties.”
The Ritual balances rich Nordic mythology against terrifying creature-feature hallmarks. The look of its main monster isn’t revealed in full until near the end, but its design is so simple and so unsettling, you’ll wonder why you’ve never seen something like it before.
The plot of Bruckner’s film deals with guilt, family, and other touchpoints of modern masculinity that are rarely explored on screen, let alone in a horror film.
“I always find that horror works best when it’s tethered to real-world anxieties,” Bruckner told Bloody Disgusting. “This [story] felt especially relevant to me, both personally and as a broader exploration of masculinity in crisis.”
There aren’t a lot of jump-scares in The Ritual. The majority of its spookiness factor comes from the characters themselves, through nightmares induced by whatever lurks in the forest and presented to the audience as a part of the scenery, just like trees and moss. It’s terrifying, but even when characters wake up suddenly, there’s no relief to be found.
“I think horror films are nightmares – that’s very much how I approach it,” Bruckner told The Moveable Fest. “The more permission I can get from the audience to explore nightmare language, that’s just really fun for me.”
This shines through not just in the literal nightmare sequences of The Ritual, but the general sense of unease that pervades the film.
If you’re looking for scary good time that combines the more traditional horror of Midsommar with the eerie, god-worshipping cult of Hereditary, look no further than The Ritual. It draws on classic, almost comforting horror tropes, but the twists and turns it takes along the way make the film a riveting watch from start to finish.
The Ritual is now streaming on Netflix.