Based on Adam Nevill’s immersive, creepy 2011 novel, this movie tells the story of a group of male friends, including guilt-ridden Luke (played by Rafe Spall), hiking across the Swedish countryside as a tribute to their dead friend Rob.
When one of the group sprains his knee, the fateful decision is made to take a shortcut through a forest, where they stumble upon runes carved in trees, a gutted deer and finally a cabin, which they sleep in to avoid the rain. From now on things get ever-creepier, after a statue of a headless human body, made from twigs and antlers, is discovered in one of the cabin’s rooms…
This is a very satisfying horror tale with a well-sustained atmosphere, shot impressively on location in a seemingly endless forest. Rafe Spall’s character has some well-handled flashbacks/nightmares of the night Rob was murdered in a bungled store robbery and the inference is that these ongoing nightmares aren’t solely due to Luke’s guilt over not helping Rob, but also because something has got into his head and is messing with his emotions. Luke isn’t alone in this, as his buddies are also suffering from bad dreams, with one of them (Arsher Ali) seemingly praying to the twig statue whilst asleep.
As the friends trudge onwards through the forest, they soon realise they are being stalked by a creature, something massive enough to push aside trees as it passes through them. This is where THE RITUAL really stands out, creating a very intriguing beast referred to as a Jötunn, a god-creature from Norse legend: a bastard-offspring of Loki.
We find this out after the two surviving friends enter a forest village inhabited by people who pray and sacrifice to this creature in return for a kind of immortality. This everlasting life is shown to be quite a ghastly fate when Luke goes into an attic and finds a large group of withered ‘corpses’ that are actually still alive, imbued with a horrible version of eternal life through their worship of the Jötunn.
As the finale kicks-in we are shown the Jötunn in all its glory: a huge elk-monster with a very weird head that sports human arms, small glowing eyes and antlers. This beast is very novel-looking and it helps make a good horror movie even more special.
Behind the scenes…
Here’s the maquette of the beast, based on concept designs by Keith Thompson. The model stands 2 feet tall and was used as photogrammetry reference for the VFX department for details and colour.
Here are behind the scenes shots of dummies used for the ‘congregation’ (the living dead ‘corpses’ seen in the attic). Two of these dummies had components for puppeteering. There were also eight background makeups on actors used to complete the congregation group. Head sculptures were by Clint Ziccoli, based on designs by Keith Thompson, and animatronics & fabrication by Mark Villalobos.
About the novel…
Adam Nevill’s original novel is different in places, compared to the movie plot, though the central story is the same: the characters go on a trekking holiday through a Scandinavian forest, though it is not undertaken as a tribute to a murdered friend, which is the trigger for the trip in the movie.
The main character in the book (played by Rafe Spall in the film) isn’t wracked with guilt, as in the movie, but is someone who struggles with a quick-fire temper and feelings of bitterness, caused by his perceived lack of success with jobs and relationships compared to his better off friends.
The creature in the novel is very different, and is effective in its own way, racing through the trees like some long, black, hard-to-see beast that can easily merge into the background foliage.
The people living in the forest that the protagonists encounter are also quite different compared to those portrayed in the film. These odd denizens in the novel are pretty interesting characters, including some young, black metal-loving dudes and a hoofed old lady, though I think the forgotten community of Norse villagers seen in the movie are equally as compelling .
Where the book really scores highly, however, is in its ability to really place the reader in the midst of an almost impenetrable, ancient forest, where each step becomes a struggle to push onwards past roots, sharp twigs and closely-packed tree trunks. You really feel like you are stuck in that dank, dark place with the characters. Great stuff.