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If You Go Down To The Woods: The Ritual Reviewed
Sean Kitching , October 20th, 2017 09:27

Sean Kitching ventures into the forest to observe the first ever adaptation of a novel by Quietus favourite Adam Nevill

As regular readers of the Quietus, especially around the season of Halloween, will be aware, British horror novelist Adam Nevill is much appreciated around these parts, both for his own highly imaginative and literate fiction and his wide ranging knowledge of the horror genre. It has been with some excitement and sense of anticipation then, that we’ve been following the progress of his first film, The Ritual, directed by David Bruckner, whose previous work The Signal (2007) and V/H/S, was moderately successful with critics and genre fans alike. Although Bruckner is American, the film is to all outward appearances a British affair, a production of Andy Serkis and John Cavendish’s London-based Imaginarium company, with a predominantly British cast, including Timothy Spall’s son, Rafe Spall, Robert James-Collier, Arsher Ali and grandson of former Doctor Who, Patrick Troughton, Sam Troughton. Impressively shot in Romanian forest posing as Sweden, the film film’s first two-thirds remains largely faithful to the novel from which it was adapted.

Coerced by a sense of mutual guilt after the violent death of a friend on a lad’s night out, four remaining buddies take up his suggestion of a hiking trip in Sweden in remembrance of their fallen comrade. They soon run into trouble when the most financially successful (and most physically out of shape) of their group, Dom, twists his knee, thus forcing a change in trajectory off the established path and through the dark woods. Having good cause to shoulder most of the blame for his friend’s death by his lack of intervention in the events leading up to it, Rafe Spall’s character, Luke, suffers recurring PTSD nightmares. The flickering broken neon of the late night inner-city supermarket where the traumatic event occurred appears overlaid on the ubiquitous forest trees to great, if perhaps slightly overused, effect. Considered from the point of view of Luke’s character, the experiences contained within the film’s narrative arc could be seen as a ritual offering him the chance to overcome his initial trauma by bringing him face to face with the deeper, more atavistic horror lurking in the pagan woodland. One of the novel’s great strengths is that it makes a very specific connection between the unnatural fate faced by a horror story’s protagonist and the more natural, yet no less final, ends to which we all are heading: “The possibilities for destruction here were not so different in any other place; they just took different forms. Nor was the intent for violence any different here; that was everywhere he had ever lived. Or the self-absorption, the pathological ambition, the spite and delight in the downfall of others - all of that was back home too.” The film maintains a similar tone, suggested by Luke’s dreams and touched upon by the friends’ dialogue, rather than being openly stated.

The characters and their interactions are well played and believable, and their banter conveys the right kind of caustic humour individuals placed in such a rapidly worsening situation might well display. Gore is used sparingly in the first half of the film, and the tension becomes almost unbearable at certain points. Towards the end though, the plot begins to deviate significantly from the novel. There is a particular omission best left unrevealed, that actually works in its favour, but as the events careen towards the final act, it becomes apparent that all the preceding tension, built up so well in the initial part of the film, will not be done justice by the too swiftly dissipating climax. The monster itself, when finally revealed, is a worthy visual interpretation of Nevill’s creation, but perhaps due to budgetary constraints, or the simple desire to keep the film at around the 90 minute mark, the movie’s ending pales in comparison with the novel’s final act, which had me on tenterhooks until the very last page. For anyone unfamiliar with the text upon which it is based, The Ritual, will likely be seen as a superior British horror film and the ending won’t be such a point of contention. For those of us comparing it to the novel, it’s still an excellent rendering that nevertheless falls a little short at its conclusion. An extra ten minutes screen time and staying closer to the book’s finale would have made for an almost perfect adaptation. It remains immensely satisfying for fans, however, to see such a largely successful translation of Nevill’s work to the big screen. HIs other books, particularly Last Days, No One Gets Out Alive and Lost Girl, would all make fantastic films, and it’s this writer’s sincere hope that Bruckner’s treatment of The Ritual, is the first of many cinematic adaptions to come.

The Ritual is available on Netflix

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