“RITUAL” (Movie Review)
A heavy sense of dread is cast over films in which terrible things befall characters that inhabit a sunny, 50s-esque world. It’s not an unfamiliar tactic, coating events in a false, nostalgic cheer that, by contrast, emphasizes the evil that men do (and have always done) even more. Or, maybe it just hurts to see violence toward someone introduced in such an adorable bathing suit. Whatever the case, writer/director Mickey Keating opens RITUAL on such an aesthetic—but not before a Gaspar Noé homage/onscreen warning of the violence to come—in which the film’s leads romantically meet on the beach. It’s an ideal moment, a single push in as the two flirt, that’s sandwiched between that explicit cautioning and their dialogue drowned out by foreboding noise. This being a horror film, we know that perfect moment cannot last, and here it is dissolving before us. Only the image remains, like a memory. Which, ultimately it is; Lovely (Lisa Marie Summerscales) and Tom’s (Dean Cates) courtship doesn’t even make it through the opening credits.
That pre-movie text isn’t the only cinematic nod found in RITUAL. Even its opening titles recall one of the greatest horror films of all time. The credits play, while the symbol of RITUAL’s killers (a skeleton mask) looms in the shadows just off to the side, à la HALLOWEEN. It’s not a distractingly obvious choice, instead serving to convey the type of film Keating is interested in making, and eventually does. RITUAL is simple in plot and stylish in construct. Lovely, now estranged from Tom, calls her former beau in distress. She’s accompanied a man back to his motel room and killed him in self defense. It’s a shitty hand to begin with, but the not-so-gentleman who attempted to drug Lovely had plans for her that went beyond the already awful obvious. Enlightened via a VHS found in the corpse’s car, Lovely and Tom are now the intended subjects of ritualistic sacrifice.
Being a brisk film, RITUAL is one half intimate, indie motel dilemma/one half violent pursuit, punctuated by stark oddities in aesthetic and sound design throughout. Very early on, the camera follows Tom’s jeep down a dark highway to the lodge. Tom turns in, but Keating, in a moody choice, keeps riding along the bleak road. The full moon hangs, watching over. Tom’s radio plays Halloween night audio dramas. The filmmaker intends to remind us this is all a horror story, and it isn’t going anywhere good. As Keating ratchets tension up, RITUAL becomes more assaulting, even surreal. Ominous noise surrounds the viewer, while freeze frames, jarring cuts and lo-fi grain mirror Lovely and Tom’s states. The odd little choices reveal that the pseudo-50s affectation recalls David Lynch for a reason. The story isn’t strange, but the movie is.
Keating’s insistence on framing Lovely and Tom as now “inside a horror story” (even their names are archetypal) and the Lynchian aura converge in the visual motif of the motel television’s white space. At first bringing them into the world of this cult and what they do, the push in on white spaced footage then reminds us of the zoom out from it at the beginning of TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME. What follows on that tape is eerie and snuff-like, or at least what the movies tell us is snuff-like, and what the movies tell us is Satanist. Referencing the campfire story nature of audio dramas and being steeped in cinematic nods, it often feels as if RITUAL is about specifically filmic nightmares come to get you, and maybe even the “ritual” of engaging with horror itself.
It’s unlikely, but maybe if Lovely and Tom never watched that tape, they wouldn’t be in this mess. They prod the darkness, much like we do in deciding to sit and watch a horror film, or read a comic, or a novel, or listen to a story, engaging and facing that which might frighten. The I STAND A LONE-like warning, the golden Hollywood beach beginning, the HALLOWEEN-pointing credits, the old-time radio all contextualize and guide the audience into their ordeal. Soon, as the white space appears with more frequency, it’s pointed directly at the viewer, like two walls trapping not only Lovely and Tom, but us as well.
RITUAL is now available on DVD, Digital Download and VOD from Lionsgate.