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The Ritual

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A group of four friends reunite to remember their friend who was killed. They hike into the mountains of Sweden, doing something they know he would have loved. On the way back they decide to take a shortcut through the woods. A storm leaves them stranded overnight in a strange abandoned cabin where they find something that shakes them to the core. The men soon realize they are not alone in these woods.

The Ritual stands out as a fantastic horror film because, despite it being absolutely chilling, it is primarily a character driven film. The inciting incident is the tragic death of a friend. One man blames himself for his friend’s death, and he feels that the others in their group blame him too. The relationships between the four surviving friends are truly fantastic. They all have amazing chemistry, while also maintaining a heightened tension when it comes to who is to blame for the death. As things get worse for them in the woods those tensions only continue to grow. The sometimes volatile relationships between the friends makes for some dramatic and fascinating events when they have to rely on each other in order to survive.

The mythology in this film is dark, mysterious, and very original. Much of it is taken from ancient Norse mythology, and quite a bit the filmmakers created on their own. While some of this mythology will be familiar, the strange altar the friends come across and the entity they encounter in the climax is something entirely new. The filmmakers manage to give audiences something fresh, which is desperately needed on the more mainstream side of horror. The newness of the evil also makes the scares that much more intense as the audience doesn’t know what to expect. The gorgeous cinematography and fantastic score only add to the feeling of dread and fear throughout the film. Watching it somehow makes you feel the unnerving isolation of being lost in the forest, while also making sure you know there is something out there you do not want to meet. The filmmakers also go for the more subtle, buildable scares rather than jump scares. It lends perfectly to the eerie ambience of the film. While this is only the second feature length film directed by David Bruckner, with a few short segments from horror anthologies, he clearly has mastered his craft.

There are several familiar faces in The Ritual, and all of them give outstanding performances. Rafe Spall (Hot Fuzz, Prometheus) has arguably the most powerful performance as the troubled Luke. He clearly blames himself for not coming to the rescue and saving his fallen friend. Spall perfectly conveys Luke’s inner turmoil and why he is even more determined to save his friends in the woods. Asher Ali (The Missing, Doctor Who) plays Phil, who seems to be one of the worst effected when the group stays overnight in the cabin. He feels fear, or at least shows it the most, more than anyone else. Ali does an amazing job of making the audience feel his terror. Hutch is played by Robert James-Collier (Downton Abbey, The Level). Hutch establishes himself early as the leader of the group, and he also often acts as the peacekeeper. James-Collier exudes confidence and determination, even when his character is faced with the worst. Finally, there is Sam Troughton (AVP: Alien vs. Predator, Robin Hood) as Dom. Troughton portrays Dom as a bit of a jerk. He is the most outspoken about blaming Luke for their friend’s death, and he is the most outspoken when it comes to complaining as they all try to find their way out of the woods. Together these four actors create compelling characters who have complicated relationships.

This film has some of the most striking, yet simple, imagery I have seen in a long time. The filmmakers opted for a combination of practical and CGI effects, depending on the scene and the focus. The practical effects are very well done, and they create some of the more subtly disturbing images. The CGI, surprisingly, is what shines in this film. I won’t go into too much detail, because you should truly see it for yourself, but the creature design in this film is absolutely stunning and horrifying all at once. It stands out in my mind as one of the most original and beautiful things I have seen in a horror movie in recent memory. It is the kind of design where every time you see it you notice something new and terrible that you hadn’t noticed before. It is so spectacular it is easy to forget it is CGI. What makes the creature even more powerful is what it represents in the film which is, similar to the creature in The Babadook, guilt and how a person deals with that guilt.

The Ritual is a character-driven film that takes four friends down a sinister and unearthly path. The way the characters are written, and how they are acted, grounds the story as it spirals further away from what we know as real. It has beautiful cinematography and music that only adds to the eerie nature of the film. Then, of course, there is the creature design that is sure to be a highlight for horror fans. Between the acting and the CGI creature, it is difficult to determine what the best aspect of this film is. Whichever you choose, this film is likely to be a favorite horror film this year and beyond.

OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10

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The Monster

A mother and her young daughter have a tumultuous relationship. The mother is a neglectful alcoholic, and the daughter essentially has to take care of her mother. They come to the decision that the daughter should go stay with her dad for a while. On the drive there they get into a car accident. They are stranded on a lonely road in the middle of the woods, in the dark and rain. It soon becomes clear that there is something hunting them from the woods. The mother and daughter will have to rely on each other in order to survive the monster in the darkness.

Writer/director Bryan Bertino (The Strangers) knows how to create a character-driven horror film. Yes, there is a terrifying monster trying to kill the characters in the story, but the real focus is the relationship between the mother and daughter. The mother, Kathy, is a raging alcoholic who can’t seem to get it together. This leaves the very young daughter, Lizzy, to not only care for herself, but also care for her train wreck of a mother. There relationship is very volatile and typically consists of screaming matches, and sometimes even violence. We learn much about how they ended up on the road, hating each other, through a series of flashbacks from both the mother’s and daughter’s point of view. When the two are thrown into survival mode as they fight for their lives against a dangerous monster,  it forces them to not only face the danger at hand, but their relationship as well.

While I am technically a film critic, sometimes I get annoyed with film critics because they tend to read too much into films. I saw The Monster as part of the International Horror and Scifi Film Festival’s Horror Showcase. After the film there was a discussion about what people thought and many of the viewers were also film critics. While I agree with many of the people there that believe the monster was a physical embodiment (or a metaphor) for the alcoholism and addiction that is tearing the mother and daughter apart the other film critics lost me when they said things like the monster didn’t exist at all or other out-there theories. Yes, the monster was a physical representation of what the family was going through, but it was also simply a monster. The two things are not mutually exclusive in horror films.

The monster itself was very well done. The filmmakers chose to go the route of practical effects, which was necessary in a film like this that is so grounded in emotions. The creature design was also very well done. The face was frightening and vicious. There were a few flaws. It was very clear in many scenes where you see the full body of the monster that you can clearly tell it is a man in a monster suite. Despite that, I still appreciate that they chose this over CGI. The only other issues I had with the monster had more to do with inconsistencies in the story. It appears that when light is shined in the monster’s face, it runs off. Whether it is scared of the light or the light hurts it, we never know. My issue is that, while it is afraid of the light from a flashlight and flame, it doesn’t seem to be bothered much by street lights or headlights. Possible it is only effected by light shined directly in it’s eyes, but if that was the case it should have been made more clear.

When a story takes places primarily in the dark, it is common for a lot to be lost in the darkness. This is not the case for The Monster. The cinematography is stunning. They did an amazing job of making sure things can be seen clearly throughout the film no matter how dark it was. There was also a lot of play with light and darkness that brought a lot of beauty to the scenes. One scene specifically stands out in my mind after watching the film. Kathy gets out of the car to investigate something and she is standing in the light of the headlights, the forest illuminated behind her. It seems like she should be safe in the light, but the deeper into the forest you look the darker it gets. It is clear that there is danger nearby. The shot was so simple yet something about it is absolutely gorgeous.

The two leads in this film gave absolutely marvelous performances. Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks, What If) blew me away as the drunken mother, Kathy. Kazan portrayed Kathy’s internal struggle of wanting to be a good mother while also having no control over her addiction. This was a role I wouldn’t have thought Kazan to be in, but now I can’t imagine it with anyone else. Ella Ballentine (The Captive, Standoff) was quite a surprise as the daughter, Lizzy. I had never seen her in a film before, and she had such a strong presence on the screen. Ballentine was so powerful because she is portrayed in most of the film as the “adult” because she has to take care of her alcoholic mother. She then goes from being strong and independent to a scared little girl when she realizes monsters are real. The two actresses together made the perfect duo.

What makes The Monster such a masterful film is that it throws people who don’t want to be around each other into a terrifying situation where they have to rely on each other to survive. It is something that Bertino also did in The Strangers. While there are horrifying events happening around them, the true focus of the film is the relationship between the mother and daughter. Because of this, I am able to look past the couple flaws involving the monster and see the masterpiece this film truly is. Horror and non-horror fans alike will appreciate this film and likely relate to the relationships that we as the audience witness.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

Nightlight

Covington Woods is known for being a place where people venture to commit suicide. Robin (Shelby Young) recently lost her best friend who killed himself in these woods. Despite that, she still decides to go into the woods at night with a group of the popular kids to drink, tell scary stories about the forest, and play flightlight games. Everything starts out innocently enough, but strange things begin to happen that the friends can’t explain. There is something evil waiting for them in the dark depths of the forest, and it’s out for blood.

When I first heard about this film it seemed like a scary concept. Found footage films generally scare me quite a bit, and most towns have at least one area that is known for suicides. This film definitely had intense moments and a few good jump scares. Sadly, I felt more disappointment than anything after finishing the film, and there are many aspects that took away from what could have been a really scary story.

The acting was quite disappointing. The only performance that didn’t feel forced and unnatural came from Mitch Hewer (Skins). The only downside to his performance was that there were multiple occasions where his English accent came through. It wasn’t just a word or two where he lost the American accent; it was full sentences where he went from sounding like the average American teen to an Englishman trying to hide his accent. The other three leads gave such lackluster performances that I found myself not caring about the well-being of their characters. Shelby Young (Days of Our Lives) I found particularly annoying. This was likely due not only to her acting being unconvincing, but her character also just did so many idiotic things throughout the film. That likely has more to do with the writing, but it still bothered me.

One thing that made me dislike the movie the most was how it made it unclear what the source of the evil was. In the beginning, when the teens are telling scary stories, they talk about people being possessed in the woods and what to do (or not to do) in order to avoid the evil spirits that lurk in the forest. These stories, and some of the events later in the film, lead me to believe that the evil in the forest is some kind of demonic presence. Later, it is implied that maybe Robin’s friend who had killed himself in those woods was doing this to the teens in order to punish them. Robin even addresses the evil as Ethan (her friend who committed suicide) many times. The film goes back and forth between implying the source is demonic and the source is Ethan. At the end of the film it felt like that question was never really answered. Personally, I fell like it makes so much more sense that there is a demonic presence making everything happen instead of Ethan. Maybe the filmmakers meant for you to interpret it how you see it, but it just came across as confused.

When it comes to the scares, this film did a fairly good job. As I said before, found footage films always tend to scare me just because it feels like you are seeing things from the point of view of the victims. On top of that, this film did a good job of doing the more subtle jump scares. This means it relied more on spooky noises and catching small glimpses of the evil. It is always so much scarier when you can’t see what it is that’s after you. There is really only one scene where you get a full view of the evil, and of course, that is one of the least-scary scenes in the entire film. I would go so far as to say the full view of the evil landed more on the cheesy side rather than scary.

Despite all the negative things I have said about the film, there are a few things that I enjoyed. I felt like it was an interesting idea, there were definitely times where I jumped, and it had a really cute dog in it named Kramer. There were just more parts that I didn’t enjoy that outweigh the good. The biggest disappoints were the acting and the tragically large plot holes. I can see this being more entertaining for teenage audiences, but if you are like me and need a bit more substance then you should probably skip this one.

OVERALL RATING: 4.5/10

Dark Was the Night

Paul Shields (Kevin Durand) is the sheriff in a small town at the edge of a forest. Things in this sleepy little town take a turn when odd things begin to happen. Livestock and family pets start to vanish during the night. Then one morning bizarre animal tracks are found in the snow throughout the entire town. Is this the result of an elaborate prank, or is there something more ominous at work? Shields must quickly follow the clues to find the truth before panic engulfs the residents and things go from bad to worse.

I have to start this review by saying how much I love Kevin Durand (The Strain, X-Men: Wolverine). While he typically plays gruff, surly characters, Durand showed his range in this film. He is still a bit of a tough guy, but his character in this film has more emotional depth with the inner demons he has to battle. Even though his role in this film is smaller, Nick Damici (Stake Land, Late Phases) is also great. He plays the knowledgeable local hunter who also owns what is probably the only bar in town. The only acting in the film that I wasn’t completely sold on came from Lukas Haas (Mars Attacks, Inception). He plays Donny Saunders, the new deputy in town that recently moved from the big city. There wasn’t necessarily anything bad about his acting, but it seems like he plays the same character in practically every movie I have seen him in. He is quiet, slightly awkward, and he doesn’t really show any emotions (especially in his face).

The story for this film moved at a very nice, gradual pace up until the climax. It created a feeling of hysteria, which worked well because it gives you an idea of what the townspeople are likely feeling as these events occur. I love that you only see glimpses of what lurks in the woods. It makes the climax that much more effective when the creature is finally revealed. While I think this film really could have benefited from practical effects for the creature, I understand why they chose to go with CGI effects instead. The creature still looked amazing and terrifying.

The only thing that really bothered me was that the filmmakers opted to use a blue filter on the camera anytime they filmed during the day. This may just be a personal preference, but I really hate when movies use a blue filter to either exaggerate the look of it being cold or to attempt to turn a scene filmed during the day into a night scene. To me, it almost feels like the filmmakers think the audience isn’t smart enough to understand. We get that it is cold in the daytime scenes of this film. They are wearing winter clothes, the ground is covered with dead leaves, and for a good portion of the movie there is snow. The blue filter was completely unnecessary. As I said, this is probably just a personal preference, but it really bugs me.

There were many successful aspects of this film. In general, the acting was excellent (especially Durand). I also loved that they took a creative, original story line and turned it into an exceptionally creepy film. It is the kind of movie that will make you think twice about entering the woods alone. This film also had a unique creature that I have not seen anywhere else. Go watch this film, and be prepared to be on the edge of your seat for the full 90 minutes.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10