It was only a matter of time before Netflix handed the keys over to a guy like David Bruckner, who is now more than ever one of the most exciting directors in the genre. Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen the steaming outlet take more and more chances on horror filmmakers (Mike Flanagan and Oz Perkin quickly come to mind), giving them boundless freedom to create their mad worlds. While Bruckner has already established himself among genre fans with his debut feature The Signal (a massively underrated gem) and following it up with a couple of brain-melting segments in V/H/S and Southbound, his work is finally garnering the attention of the rest of the world with his mythos-shocker The Ritual. In it, a group of college friends reunite for a trip to the forest, but encounter a menacing presence in the woods that’s stalking them.
It’s the most obvious set-up in horror—a group of friends get themselves lost in the woods; what could possibly go wrong? It’s that very familiar ground that Bruckner begins to conjure up something entirely different, leading his story into a world we have, without question, never seen before. While it does take some time to get there, the outcome is as gnarly and unexpected as you could hope for. And like most stories, it’s really all about the journey, and this one is filled with horror, monsters, and the unknown.
Although The Ritual does start out feeling very been-there-done-that, Bruckner is just so good at manipulating atmosphere that he could film a toaster and still somehow make you feel a sense of dread filling the room. And that was by far the film’s strongest component; the way Bruckner toys with his characters (and subsequently the audience) was a masterful display of slow-burn terror.
Unfortunately for me, this is a pretty tough movie to review without spoiling anything because the less you know, the better. I will say this, though: The Ritual, in a way, almost gives us two movies. The first couple of acts are a straight-faced, boiler pot of a horror story. Bruckner is constantly ramping up the tension, only giving us bits and pieces of what he really has planned. These poor characters are just relentlessly tormented, and it’s hard to imagine things only getting worse. And that’s one of the things that Bruckner does so well here, is that he’s just teasing the audience every chance he gets. It’s the third and final act where the story takes a turn, however. It feels like a completely different movie as Bruckner really starts to open up the story and take it in a completely different direction.
While the atmosphere and tension were palpable, and the first two acts offer some wonderfully jarring moments of horror, it’s the third act where things really change for the film. But because I wan’t to avoid any spoilers, I’ll just say this: the third act, while certainly polarizing, is the first time The Ritual actually feels like something different, something we’ve never seen before. It doesn’t always work, but the way Bruckner just drops this Lovecraftian bomb out of nowhere was pretty gnarly, even if it felt tonally out of place.
I just wish he would have committed to it much sooner because before you know it, the climax comes and goes almost immediately. And one of my pet peeves in horror is when a film puts its characters through hell just to end so… nonchalantly. You can’t show us all of this insane shit and then just end it so damn easily, especially right when it starts to get interesting. C’mon! Despite that, I think it’s fair to say that The Ritual is one of the biggest surprises of the year and a fine new addition to Netflix’s horror library.