Somehow I did manage to avoid seeing this new horror film until I had read the book it is adapted from by the author Adam Nevill. I had recently met him around the time this was due out at cinemas and as I started reading more of his books (and became more of a fan) decided to hold back and experience the book first.
There are many times a film is adapted from a successful or well known book-for example Silence of the Lambs-and people always say ‘the book was better’ or ‘not as good as the book’ so I wanted to make it one of those time I actually read the book first.
I’ve read a few of his books now and they are always written well but I can see why The Ritual was chosen to be a film over some of the others. The story so obviously has that horror movie big screen atmosphere, could be made on a fairly low budget and possibly fits in with similar movies around these days.
Personally, I enjoyed the book a lot but over half way in there are some parts of the story and characters I may have changed or written differently. Some of those things were changed in the film-more on that later.
So just as a modern horror movie, even if you are not familiar with the book, how well does it succeed? The film sees a group of male friends who have known each other since university days get back together around a decade later after one of them has died. They decide to explore the wilds of Sweden on a hiking trip. It starts of well, we see how the friends act together, how the group works, hear about how their lives have changed over the years since university. Each friend is different, they have different outlooks on life, some more jaded, cynical than others, some experiencing divorce, career problems, regrets.
At the start we see them on the town back in the day, where two of the friends Luke and Rob go to a corner shop for more booze. There is a robbery in the shop, Luke survives but Rob dies. Throughout the film, we see Luke constantly thinks about how he didn’t save his friend, how it could have been him.
After a couple of days hiking the group gets lost, one injures his leg, slowing them down. They find some disturbing things in the woods around them. Settling down for a night in an abandoned cabin they encounter and experience more unexplainable things. Lost in the forest, with hardly any food or water and arguing over the direction something in out there making sounds, moving among the trees, waiting…
It sounds like a very simple idea for a film and well, it is but the direction and acting make it works really well. Rafe Spall in the lead role as Luke carries the film but the other actors support him well, their characters reacting to the terror around them well.
There are some humorous dark comic funny lines as the characters try to comprehend their situation and get through it. There are several graphic scenes which heighten the fear without being to overdone.
What many have been talking about since the film was released is the actual monster stalking them in the great forest. This thing is CGI but by god, it possibly is one of the most distinctive, haunting things in any horror movie for a long while. And also it actually is basically exactly how it is described in the original novel. Well done filmmakers.
Also the scenes where Luke has flashbacks or hallucinations to where he watched his friend die in the cornershop are filmed really well as he seems to sit in the forest where the cornershop appears among the deep trees before him or it is cut and edited well. Yes, some very good editing in this film as well.
So how different is the film to the book? Well it is mostly exactly the same until around the big turning point in the story, after half way in the book-
The acting and characters are very much as they are in the book but I did feel a good portion of them wandering the large deep and dark forest and their arguments and desperation and some of the detail of their individual characters was stripped down to some extent. I can understand that this regularly happens for book to film adaptations and it is not as bad an outcome as does often happen.
(Spoiler ahead?) Luke and Dom make it to some strange large cabin and meet strange locals.
In the book it turns out some nasty young black metal Satanists have been watching and hunting them down one by one. These Satanist black metal youths trap Luke in a room, with plans to sacrifice him. He eventually talks with the them, arguing with the leader about what life means, what lies in the forest, music, what the world gets wrong. Eventually Luke escapes after a long fight, flees and confronts the forest monster, drives away in a bloody and beaten state, smashes into it in a crazed detailed confrontation but only just survives to make it back to home.
The film still takes Luke to the cabin where the meets strange locals who worship the forest monster/Satanic beast, but the specific young black metal band characters of the book and the time Luke spends talking with them is cut out. The film shows only brief versions of these characters, but the mysterious old woman with them remains, feeding him up for the sacrifice. The final ending of Luke confronting the monster is changed, but is equally dramatic and possibly works better for the big screen or as a movie ending.
This film feels like some of the best old hammer horror films and The Wicker Man for modern times, with a hint of Blair Witch in there too. Very well made modern horror and I recommend it to all horror movie fans.
James Parsons is author of the horror novel Northern Souls available now from all good bookshops and online in paperback and ebook. He has also published two SF novels -Orbital Kin, Minerva Century also available now.