When it comes to storytelling, nothing good ever comes from going into the deep, dark woods. Or worse, being foolhardy enough to attempt a shortcut through them.
From the haunted Mirkwood of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, with its gargantuan carnivorous spiders, to The Evil Dead's cabin in the woods with its "rotten apple head" Kandarian demon, there is no shortage of reasons to shiver around these timbers. Even that fairy-tale ingénue Little Red Riding Hood should have known better.
So thank goodness for blunt-force stupidity and the cockiness of male hormones that can get you killed just like that. It has given us The Ritual, a fresh new horror flick from American director David Bruckner that streams on Netflix from Friday.
After the death of their friend, four old college friends pushing 40 set off into the Scandinavian wilderness of the Arctic Circle where they hope to briefly escape the worries of their everyday lives and reconnect with one another. With little backwoods experience between them, a shortcut meant to ease their hike quickly devolves into a nightmare state of affairs that puts all of their lives in jeopardy.
Bruckner's previous fright experience includes directing the "found footage" short Amateur Night, part of the V/H/S horror anthology (2012), as well as a segment of Southbound (2015), a film with five interlocking tales of terror spun around weary travellers who confront their fears on a desolate midnight stretch of desert highway.
"It's a whole different language [from "found footage"] when you're making a movie like this because you're sort-of choosing to show what you do and you don't show," Bruckner says. "If you're not careful, the audience will feel the hand of the director in those moments. I think a lot of times, at least particularly with The Ritual, I'm hoping they're not aware of the cinema in that regard – and they're just kind of lost in the experience with these characters as much as possible."
Andy Serkis – the performance-capture and voice genius behind The Lord of the Rings' Gollum, King Kong, Caesar the chimp in Planet of the Apes, Star Wars' Supreme Leader Snoke, and as Baloo the bear in the Mowgli reboot of The Jungle Book coming later this year – gives a positive influence to The Ritual as a producer is. His London-based production company, The Imaginarium, bought the rights to the Nordic noir novel by Adam Nevill on its publication in 2011.
The film had its premiere in the Midnight section of the Toronto International Film Festival in September, generating instant buzz and bidders, with Netflix buying world rights in a deal pegged at US$4.8 million (Dh17.6m).
On the acting front, The Ritual stars Rafe Spall, known for The Big Short, Life of Pi and the upcoming Jurassic World sequel; Robert James-Collier of Downton Abbey and Spike Island; Arsher Ali, from Line of Duty and Four Lions; and Sam Troughton, known for Robin Hood and Alien vs Predator.
When asked if anything scary ever happened to him on holiday, James-Collier laughs, then replies: “I went on a camping holiday, but it’s just, you know, the air mattress popped for all the wrong reasons – there was a branch underneath.
There was an electrical storm that flooded the tent. The fire flared up on its own in the middle of the night which scared the crap out of me. So I sent the missus out to see what was going on. And it was cold. And it was wet. And it was miserable. So I’m not a big camper.”
After first reading the script by Joe Barton, Troughton says he "didn't realise it was a horror film" until the point they find a gutted elk hanging in a tree. "Before that, I felt it was a black comedy about this group of guys who can't really communicate."
Ali adds: "It's got that Deliverance vibe, especially in the first chunk of the film. It explores the whole idea of masculinity – failed masculinity. When you get guys, put them out into the wild... and they crumble... especially if they got jeans on."
In one harrowing scene, the foursome come across a room with an effigy, perhaps of supernatural origin, which was something the cast found extremely unsettling in real life.
“It was scary to even go up there when we were shooting,” Troughton says. “We were daring each other to go up there. There was something deeply wrong with that thing. It had chicken’s feet, for god’s sake.”
The film enjoyed a brief theatrical release in the United Kingdom in October, winning a four-star review from The Sun film critic Jamie East, who said: "The very Britishness of the script gives a really funny and sarcastic twinge to proceedings, which at times feels very Children of the Corn doing Blair Witch directed by Guillermo del Toro. A really enjoyable, surreal scare."
Like the mates in The Ritual, you may find yourself nodding in agreement when one of them asks anxiously in the woods: "Is it me? Or is it really quiet in here?"
The Ritual is available for streaming on Netflix from Friday