The Ritual (2017)


These are the manly rituals of remembrance.

(2017) Horror (eOne/Netflix) Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton, Paul Reid, Matthew Needham, Jacob James Beswick, Maria Erwolter, Hilary Reeves, Peter Liddell, Francesca Mula, Kerri McLean, Gheorghe Mezei, Adriana Macsut, Constantin Liviu Codrea, Zane Jarcu. Directed by David Bruckner

 

There is nothing quite like a hike in the woods to get you connected with the planet and with your friends. There are those who relish it more than others; some prefer more urbanized pursuits. But the one thing that most people agree on – particularly when it comes to horror movies – is that short cuts rarely end well.

Five college buddies are at the pub trying to figure out where they’re going to go on their bro vacation. They are of an age where they’re getting too old for Ibiza and too young (barely) for brunch but Vegas remains an attractive option. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes the group of five and now they are a group of four. In honor of their fallen comrade, the surviving four – whiny Dom (Troughton), guilt-ridden Luke (Spall), Alpha male Hutch (James-Collier) and the “takes the piss” guy Phil (Ali) – head out on a hiking trail in Northern Sweden headed for a lodge which is supposed to be really, really cool.

Along the way, one of them twists his ankle and rather than continue on the trail or head back, the five do the horror film-stupid act of taking a short cut through the woods because we know that a walk through dark and scary woods is a far easier task than following a clear, well-marked and well-maintained trail, right? All in all, with decision making skills like that, they’d have been better off going to Las Vegas. All they’d have lost was money.

They end up lost and stranded in the woods in the balmy Swedish weather (read as “lots of rain and fog”). Soon creepy things start to happen; they find eviscerated animals hanging from trees and strange symbols carved into the wood. They hole up in an abandoned house (which Phil wryly proclaims “This is clearly the house we will all be murdered in”) with a strange straw figure on a kind of altar. No wonder each of them have terrible nightmares that night and at least one of them ends up naked in a supplicating position at the altar.

Unnerved the quartet tries to find their way back to Swedish civilization but what they don’t know is that they are running headlong into the clutches of a rural cult – and the dark thing that the cult fears and worships. Daylight can’t come fast enough.

This British film was snapped up by Netflix and well they should. This is arguably one of the best horror films since The Babadook in my opinion. It has a lost in the woods Blair Witch Project vibe (albeit without the found footage) combined with a Wicker Man cult creepiness. In fact, Bruckner does a great job with the creepy tone which continues to grow more and more unnerving as the film progresses.

The movie does start rather slowly with one scene of shocking brutal violence breaking up the monotony but it turns out to be very okay; this is a slow builder and a fast burner of a movie. By the time the second half of the film rolls around you realize you’re on a roller coaster both emotional and metaphorical as the scares and chills come at you without any let-up.

The monster in the film isn’t revealed until near the very end (mostly you see it as trees swaying and unearthly howls) and it’s certainly worth the wait. It’s not in the film very long in terms of screen time but it casts a giant shadow the whole way and it also has the power to send the characters hallucinations involving their worst fears and greatest guilt. It is particularly effective on Luke who blames himself for what happened to one of their number, not because he’s directly responsible but because he failed to help when his hour of need arose.

The movie is all about guilt and redemption and that may be a bit too cerebral for horror film fans who only care about the visceral (and there’s nothing wrong with either of those types of horror by the way). There is some scenes of gore but we don’t see bodies actually being ripped wide open by the monster which might be the movie’s only real failing.

The Ritual played the Toronto Film Festival in 2017 and has gotten some really good critical notices particularly in its native UK. Here in the States, it is available now on Netflix and worth getting the service for all by itself. This is one of the best Netflix original movies to date for the service and an early entry for the best horror film of the year.

REASONS TO GO: The monster, when finally revealed, is really nifty. The last half of the film is a roller coaster ride. The creepy factor gets higher and higher as the film goes along.
REASONS TO STAY: The film starts off rather slowly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, violence (some of it graphic and brutal), some grisly images as well as scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the producers of the film is Andy Serkis although he doesn’t appear in the film as either an actor or a motion capture specialist.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rituals
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Devil’s Gate

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Blue Jay


What could be more romantic than slow dancing with your high school sweetheart?

What could be more romantic than slow dancing with your high school sweetheart?

(2016) Romance (The Orchard/Netflix) Mark Duplass, Sarah Paulson, Clu Gulager, James Andrews, Harris Benbury, Daniel Brooks, Mary Brooks, Bill Greer, Cindy Greer, Ana Iovine, Leo Munoz, Loretta Munoz, Brady Rice, Karen Rice. Directed by Alexandre Lehmann

 

The romances of our youth are often the ones that burn the brightest in our memories. Who among us hasn’t wondered “what if” in regards to what might have  been if the relationship had survived past adolescence?

Jim Henderson (Duplass) is back in the small California town in the Sierra Nevada range where he grew up. He’s there because his mom recently passed away and he’s getting her home ready to go on the market, emptying it of her things….his things too. His mom was something of a pack rat. There’s a melancholy to Jim that isn’t all grief; his eyes have the disappointed look of a man whose life has gotten away from him.

At the grocery store to pick up some condiments for his meager dinner, he runs into Amanda, his old high school sweetheart. At first they don’t recognize each other – it was 20 years ago, after all – but then the memories begin flooding back. They agree to meet for coffee in the Blue Jay Café where they hung out as teens. Although the coffee is terrible, they begin to bond and agree to spend the rest of the day together.

They end up at Jim’s house – well, his mom’s – and while going through her things they find old photos, audio cassettes of them rapping and of play-acting their 20th anniversary (do teens really do that?) and she finds his journal, reading poems he wrote about his feelings for her ages past. The two dance to songs long forgotten but now freshly remembered. They watch the stars…and the married Amanda, in town to visit her pregnant sister, is now not so sure. She is a mother and a wife and has a satisfactory life…or does she really?

Jim is a drywall installer in Tucson now and unmarried. Never married, in fact. But he is finding that his life is changing; there’s an opportunity for a fresh start. But there was a reason the two broke up in the first place. The secret of that break-up and what has been hanging over the both of them all those years is just below the surface, ready to get out at a moment’s notice.

This little indie took me by surprise. I’m a fan of both Duplass (who wrote the script) and Paulson, so I thought it would be pretty good but considering the simple concept I found this to be one of the best-written scripts so far this year. This is a movie that is built in layers; as layers are added, they simultaneously reveal what’s inside. It’s a breathtaking job of script construction and every bit of it feels note-perfect.

Some might find the black and white cinematography off-putting and in fact early on I thought it was a bit pretentious. It looks like a beautiful little mountain town and surrounding areas that they filmed in; it’s a shame they didn’t use the colors of the mountain to their advantage but I also get the sense that they were going for a kind of retro feel, It is no accident that the longer Jim and Amanda spend together, the more they revert to adolescent behavior, dancing wildly and re-enacting their 20th anniversary dinner from the tape they heard.

I was reminded of Thomas Hardy a little bit here. He famously wrote “You can’t go home again,” but he wasn’t just referring to a place. What I believe he meant was that you cannot return to a life and time already lived, as much as you would like to. It is a melancholy truth, one few of us admit to ourselves. Deep down we always believe that we can recreate the magic of our youth but it really amounts to catching lightning in a bottle. The best we can do is make new magic instead.

The ending is bittersweet but absolutely appropriate and the big reveal is a secret so organic you just feel everything that went before it fall into place like dominoes. Again, a sign of masterful writing. This is a gem of a movie that is likely to bring back memories of your own – assuming you’re not making some new ones with the person you’re seeing this with.

REASONS TO GO: Possibly the best-written film of the year so far. The performances Duplass and Paulson are epic. A wonderfully insightful and bittersweet film without an ounce of contrivance to it.
REASONS TO STAY: The black and white cinematography is a bit pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of profanity and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The film was shot in just seven days.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before Sunset
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The White Helmets