The Halloween film reel for 2017 has a diverse line-up for fright night enthusiasts as they countdown to the witching hour by entertaining a robust array of compelling features, including the anticipated return of ‘Jigsaw’ and British / International horror ‘The Ritual’. Underdog geezer Rafe Spall teams up with ‘VHS’ contributor David Brückner to supply our preliminary fix of adrenaline on an idyllic Friday the 13th release.

The Art House labelled chiller follows a group of four friends who come together for a hike through the Nordic wilderness as a farewell gesture to their fifth companion Robert (Paul Reid) who suffered a sudden and merciless death back on British territory. Travelling with raw emotions and unspoken issues, the lads experience unexplained occurrences during a detour through the forest that test their friendship, sanity and resilience.

If a story began with the bright spark of a wandering pack deciding to take a shortcut through the woods, the ending could be predicted faster than the ‘screamer’ of the group would be killed off. However Brückner’s fourth major production unexpectedly supplies a mountain of weight behind an incredibly misleading trailer depiction that suggested we were in for a Danny Dyer-esque black comedy. With the exception of free-flowing banter cascading over a solid introduction, the plot is quick to address an underlying psychological narrative amongst creepy forest events, acting as an anchor to an otherwise recycled horror with inflated ideas that surface in later plot points. The subtle wit keeps our interest active in the lead up to the shit hitting the fan, but skilfully absorbs the change in tone when our focus shifts to more serious matters, unlocking insight into our characters behavioural patterns. The scares that await behind the branches have a direct relationship with the cognitive subtext, as protagonist Luke provides key scenes that present a unique interpretation of a tormented conscience that differentiates from past foreboding forest flicks.

Rafe Spall from ‘Green Street’ and ‘Shaun of the Dead’ glory is comfortable portraying a lively but subdued Luke, changing his manner naturally with the directors pace. Spall’s support from Robert James-Collier’s Hutch, Arsher Ali’s Phil and Sam Troughton (who remains an unnamed character throughout) offer tenacious backing and timely comic relief but never overshadows Luke’s spotlight. Spall’s portrayal of a more serious role to date shows his skills as a diverse actor, preserving his place as a household British name like his father Timothy, despite flaunting a rather mellow career. As the gang deliver a grounding performance as a unit, sporadic flickers of personal growth aid their show of individuality but bare their primitive instincts that clash in a calculable way.

‘The Ritual’ closely follows the traditional three act blueprint which neatly packages the storytelling as a whole and helps to contain the sudden shift into Nordic imagination with an idiosyncratic denouement which left half the audience feeling cheated. A cumbersome conclusion teetering amidst brilliance and nonsense interjected some wonder into an initially predictable outcome but consequently gridlocked a once energetic script. After thoroughly extinguishing any molecule of humour, a counterbalance of physical legwork was demanded from the actors to compensate, causing irritating and reckless decision making from the London boys we were meant to be rooting for. Ultimately the eye-rolling fantasy connotation will remain a meaty wedge between viewers, leaving some in awe and others running for the convivial atmosphere of the pub.

Aside from getting lost down mythical lane, Brückner’s adaptation of the titular Adam Nevill novel poses a delicious pick ‘n mix of nightmarish qualities with an intriguing subjective undertone, working closely with surprise producer Andy Serkis who lends his insight on embodying human suffering and enlightenment while building an unprecedented creation for a rather inferior twist. British screenwriter Joe Barton shows his strength in repartee but struggles to generate anything ground-breaking when it comes to the hard stuff, damaging what could have been the films leaven. The “holy shit” wallops relied heavily on imagination from suggestion and hair-raising scenarios that silenced any jump scares and added greater emphasis on Ben Lovett’s simple but effective score.

At its finest hour, ‘The Ritual’ carries a powerful ambience reminiscent of ‘The Blair Witch Project’ and its overbearing tension, but stumbles into amateur hour comparable to Nordic found footage escapade ‘Troll Hunter’, linking engaging character studies with tales of hyperbolic fantasy that failed to collaborate successfully in the closing thirty minutes. Exhibiting a well-equipped pursuit through a labyrinth of woodland torment, our first bite of this year’s Halloween platter by no means leaves you dissatisfied, but conclusively plays rather heavily on a taboo genre that calls for an acquired taste to enjoy. Even though the tagline suggests the boys should have gone to Ibiza, JumpCut recommends you head into the woods regardless.

Rating: ★★★½

Directed by: David Brückner
Cast: Rafe Spall, Sam Troughton, Robert James-Collier, Arsher Ali, Paul Reid