Mickey Keating is to millennial horror what Brian De Palma was to 1980s suspense-thrillers: a wicked talented craftsman whose day-glo quotations of influential films coalesce into works of exciting, unbridled creativity. What’s most intriguing about this auteur‘s filmography is its unpredictability: whereas most contemporary horror directors slavishly replicate their most well-loved genre images and plots with little innovation, Keating elevates familiarity into new and uncharted territory because his inspirations are so disparate.
Of all things, Ritual most resembles the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, replacing dark comedy with pure terror. In both films, unassuming characters find themselves tangled in something far more ghastly than the horrors of murder due to lapses in judgment and communication. By the time the protagonists fully comprehend their respective situations, things have gone from bad to worse, with the chances of physical and moral redemption far beyond reach. The trick of both films, which keeps them from being merely elaborate sick jokes, is that, like us, the characters are never fully aware of how dire their situations are, and what will occur next.
All that being said, is Ritual as great as Blood Simple? No. But it’s also not worthy of the low average it’s received on the IMDb (3.8 out of 10). Perhaps the underwhelming audience response has something to do with it premiering under the “After Dark Films” banner.
Keating chooses an interesting angle to tell his tale, to the point where we’re left wondering just what type of story this is. For a long stretch, the cult isn’t even (visually) present; and even when it finally appears, the members’ ultimate motive is left to speculation. The accompanying imagery is pulled from popular lore: cattle skulls, candles, chalices, black robes, and a unifying symbol that isn’t a pentagram, but invokes a similar effect in the mind’s eye.
In a nod to Gaspar Noe’s I Stand Alone, Ritual opens with a warning about the film’s “explicit violence,” but this is ultimately a bit of misdirection. The film carries an R rating, and relegates much of its gore to implication, or hidden in shadow. There is nothing a seasoned horror fan won’t be able to handle, which is fine, because the true strength of Ritual is its minimalist scenario, coupled with a dread-filled pace. To me, a feeling of gut-clenching fear goes much further than the incendiary shock of overblown splatter FX.
The story begins with a bit of stylistic verve: Keating’s camera dollies in on the beautiful Lovely (Lisa Marie Summerscales) as she suns herself on a beach. Off-camera, Tom (Dean Cates) starts flirting with her. This meeting ends with Tom lighting Lovely’s cigarette. Between the dialog and the anachronistic visuals, this sequence is jarring, shot like a beach movie from the 1950s (with frozen-in-time fashions to match) and already conflicting with the viewer’s presuppositions based on the title.
Afterward, we learn that the film is set in present day, in South Texas. An undefined period of time has passed, and the relationship between Tom and Lovely has deteriorated. When she calls Tom, frantic over something that’s happened in a seedy motel room, he arrives with questions – even more so when he sees the man she’s stabbed. What follows is a collection of film-Noir tropes, with Lovely recollecting the events leading up to the violent act; Tom attempting to rationalize the situation; and the course of action they ultimately choose. Like Blood Simple, a great midpoint twist hinges on a misplaced personal item that could be taken as evidence.
Through all of this, the cult is a circumstantial presence that is the equivalent of a sleeping rottweiler being kicked awake. That the story is not told from the perspective of these nameless – and mostly faceless – individuals makes the sense of threat more palpable and unpredictable. And the presentation of their acts – via videocassette – depicts a task rooted in a methodical nature; other horror films shoot themselves in the foot by creating a half-assed philosophy for their fictional cults…or showing their rituals in a cartoonish way, not realizing that understatement is far more effective.
In a bit of chilling coincidence, Ritual also bears an interesting resemblance to the as-yet-unreleased 2013 “cult” film, Mortal Remains. Both have a minimalist approach to horror, preferring to toy with shot composition and lighting (or lack thereof) rather than leaning on the defaults of gore and jump scares. Both also convey terror through simple means: the cultists wear death’s-head masks, and their black uniforms are perfect nighttime camouflage (a great moment in Ritual has two cultists pursuing a character in pitch blackness, the skulls becoming bobbleheads in the night). While the nighttime scenes in Ritual are grainy and sometimes difficult to decipher, I have to admire Keating’s – and DP Mac Fisken’s – decision not to inject artificial light into the image to clarify the action.
The film isn’t flawless: some of the acting is hit-or-miss, likely a result of how Ritual doesn’t approach its story in a straightforward way. The relationship between Lovely and Tom comes off as a bit dodgy, though the extremes of their actions as a couple does indicate the depth of their commitment. And the decision to unmask two of the cultists and give them a several-minute exchange doesn’t work – I can understand the desire to present the contrast of them being “just plain folk,” but the dialog adds nothing, and ultimately slows the pace in the home stretch.
On the plus side, none of these issues detract much from Ritual. As with Keating’s Darling, the tiniest details contribute to the overall effect, from incidental references to Halloween (“I guess everyone’s entitled to one good scare!”), Halloween II (the merging-into-focus skull during the opening credits), the effective score by Giona Ostinelli, the impeccable sound design by Quiet World (which gets much creepy mileage out of TV static and radio noise), and the indictment-by-watching allusions that recall Lost Highway, Videodrome, and Funny Games.
Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 7 out of 10