While Mickey Keating’s second film Ritual (2013) has its flaws, Jonny Numb is correct to point out (in his recent review) the areas where it achieves excellence. When I finally got around to watching it myself last night, I connected one of these areas with some of my recent film theory reading. The feature in question is the movie’s soundtrack, including the sound design by Quiet World and the sound editing by Keating himself.
Unlike the average horror flick, Keating’s movie does not use sound just to augment the prevailing emotions in its scenes (e.g., “this is scary”). Its soundtrack does not just complement the film’s images, underscoring what they present to the audience’s vision. Instead it “gives us the basic perspective, the ‘map’ of the situation” in which the characters find themselves.
The quotation in the last sentence comes from a 1988 article by French film theorist, composer, and researcher Michel Chion (as cited in Zizek, 1991). Chion writes about a “soft revolution” in contemporary cinema. Part of that revolution is a shift in the status of the soundtrack. As noted above, the soundtrack is no longer a mere accompaniment to the images on the screen. Instead, it “functions as the elementary ‘frame of reference'” for the film. Such framing allows the viewer to orient him/herself within the movie’s narrative without relying on the images or dialogue.
As a result, as Jonny points out, Keating is free to explore “new and uncharted territory,” including not only visual allusions to other films but also a non-linear narrative. Also, Ritual does not spend a lot of time orienting the viewer with conventions such as exposition or establishing shots. It uses the soundtrack instead. Jonny mentions that Ritual “gets much creepy mileage out of [sounds like] TV static and radio noise.” A good example of a noise is a high-pitched tone that comes into play at least twice during the film.
Although this sound augments the foreboding emotions of anxiety and dread, it also orients the viewer to the situation facing the two protagonists, Lovely and Tom. It points out their realization (which dawns on them over the course of the movie) that they are in over their heads. As Jonny writes, they are “unassuming characters [who] 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.”
Approached via theoretical means, one can see the high-pitched tone as a sign of the traumatic eruption of the Real in the midst of the film’s story. In Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory, the Real represents psychic reality (i.e., “psychological reality” in Freudian terms), as opposed to external reality.
What happens in the external world is something we cannot know (although we think that we do) because we formulate it in language from our own subjective viewpoints. Moreover, language is by nature imprecise. We usually think of language as words, either spoken or written. But it can also be made up of images on a movie screen. Either way, it does not present reality itself. Instead, it offers us either a simulacrum of it (as in the narrative scenes in Ritual) or symbols that present reality in “code” (such as the death’s-head masks that the cultists wear).
By comparison, sound (as Quiet World and Keating use it) can render reality in a direct way. Employed in this way, it “‘seizes’ us immediately, ‘renders’ immediately the thing” (Zizek, 1991, p. 40). Chion uses the French word “Rendu” (“rendering”) to label this function. But what is the “thing” that it renders? Psychic reality, or the Real. In more straightforward terms, it’s an uncanny blast of intuition out of nowhere. It suspends external reality as the nameless “thing” beyond words that it represents grabs the audience’s attention.
In the case of the high-pitched tone, the “thing” represented is a direct understanding of the horror of Lovely and Tom’s situation. By its nature, it’s impossible to put into words. So the next time you watch Ritual (or the first time, if you haven’t seen it yet), notice how its sound design makes you feel. Pay particular attention to your reaction to the high-pitched sound (you’ll know what I’m talking about when you hear it).
If you do this, you’ll experience one way that Keating and his team go beyond the conventional in their horror filmmaking. Then watch Keating’s Darling (again paying close attention to the sound design) for a more mature example of the continuing “soft revolution” in cinema as it applies to horror.
Zizek, S. (1991). Looking awry: An introduction to Jacques Lacan through popular culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.