The Ritual


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.



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.


Blair Witch

Over 15 years ago James’s sister went into the woods to film a documentary about the Blair Witch. Her and the two friends she was filming with were never seen again, but their footage was found showing some unsettling events. Now, a new video has been found in the woods and posted online. James believes it is his sister in the video and that she is still alive. In hopes of finding his long lost sister, James and his friends decide to head into those same woods to try to find her and film their entire experience.

The Blair Witch Project is one of the few films that still scares me, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. This leads me to have pretty high expectations for this latest installment. When I heard that Adam Wingard (You’re Next, V/H/S) was directing Blair Witch, my expectations were set even higher. Taking on a sequel to a very well known found-footage film was quite a different venture for Wingard. After seeing Blair Witch I can say it is the scariest film I have seen so far this year, and it’s all thanks to Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (You’re Next, V/H/S).

The first film focused primarily on the fear and suspense of being lost in the woods for days. It relied heavily on the more subtle kinds of scares that give you goosebumps. Blair Witch focuses much more on big scares and being stalked in the woods by a supernatural entity. There are many aspects of the plot that make this film a great sequel, especially when you consider how many years apart the two films were made. The plot of course reminds audiences of the mythology we learned from the first film, but it then expands on that mythology. We get to learn a bit more about the witch herself, which was very interesting. Along with the mythology, the filmmakers do an excellent job of playing with time. As things unfold it becomes clear that time moves very differently in the deep dark of the woods.

The entire film keeps you at the edge of your seat. As soon as the group enters the woods, the fear and tension only continues to get more intense. I’m the kind of person that has to ball up and cover my ears when watching a terrifying film. I was so tensed up during the entire film, that by the time the credits rolled, my arms were sore. Blair Witch has a lot of the creepy subtle scares like its predecessor, but there are a lot more jump scares and being chased in the woods than ever before. Wingard also includes some claustrophobia-inducing scenes that are terrifying. He does a great job of making you expect one thing to happen, and while you’re focusing on that, something else pops out to shake your nerves. The climax of Blair Witch even goes to an extreme level of scares and surprises that I never saw coming. There are really only one or two things that I can say I thought weren’t a great fit, although I didn’t necessarily dislike them. There is a part of the climax where there are these alien-looking bright lights. I think I understand what the purpose of those lights were, but it just isn’t explicit enough when you’re watching the film for it to make sense. It ends up detracting a bit from the terrifying situation. This film also falls into an unfortunate stereotype involving the order in which characters tend to die in horror films (if you catch my drift) which seemed a bit beneath Wingard and Barrett.

I appreciated that the filmmakers made the decision to cast lesser-known actors for this film, much like in the first one. All of the actors are absolutely phenomenal. The two leads really stand out. James Allen McCune (Shameless) blew me away in what is arguably his biggest role yet as James. His determination and belief that his sister could still be alive is quite touching and something that McCune emotes well through the camera. Calle Hernandez (From Dusk Til Dawn: The Series) is also fantastic. She has some of the most demanding physical scenes in the film, and it makes you empathize with her more than any of the other characters.

While nothing will ever be quite as good as The Blair Witch Project, Blair Witch definitely exceeds my expectations in creating a compelling sequel. This film meets every standard I have for a sequel: great directing, very well written story that builds on the mythology, and everything is bigger (the scares, the technology, the effects, etc). Wingard and Barrett are truly a dream team of horror. It seems like there is nothing they can’t achieve when they partner up. I can’t wait to see what these two do with future projects. If you want to see a film that will curdle your blood, then be sure to run to the theaters to see Blair Witch.



The Witch

A religious family decides to leave the plantation town they call home because it does not meet their religious ideals. They venture out into the wilderness in order to create their own homestead and farm the land. Not long after the family settles into their new land the baby of the family gets taken, either by a wolf or something more sinister, and a blight takes over the crops. From that moment on the family falls into a downward spiral. Their lives become surrounded by the occult, and it will slowly tear them apart.

There were so many aspects of this film I loved it is hard to figure out where I should begin. I’ve always been fascinated by witchcraft in films. Unfortunately, it can be hard to find a quality horror film on the subject. The Witch not only brought an incredible amount of intensity and tension, but it also felt like you were watching something that could actually have happened. There were times while watching the film that I felt almost uncomfortable watching the events unfold. It felt very intimate to watch this family behind closed doors as they all unravel into hysteria. This intimacy made it feel almost as if you were intruding on their private life. You feel like you shouldn’t be watching, but you can’t look away. The story is definitely more of a slow burn rather than a scare-fest.

From the moment the film began and the music started to play there is instantly a feeling of unease. This tension builds throughout the film until the climax, thanks to the musical work by Mark Korven. What made the music so captivating is that it made a shot of a simple forest landscape seem dreadful and terrifying. Music can really make or break a film, and I can’t imagine this film would have been as haunting to me if it had any other score. The music, combined with the gorgeous cinematography, created such beautiful and ominous imagery.

This is probably one of the most well acted horror films I have seen in a while. Every single person, right down to the little twins, had a phenomenal performance. While everyone did a great job, there was one performance that stood out to me. Harvey Scrimshaw (Oranges and Sunshine) gave a powerful performance as the eldest son in the family, Caleb. During the scene where he is suffering from the effects of witchcraft, Scrimshaw was so haunting and intense that I was completely blown away. I was especially impressed when I learned this is only the second film he has ever been in. Anya Taylor-Joy (Viking Quest) also had a stand-out performance as the lead, Thomasin. Like Scrimshaw, this was only the second film Taylor-Joy had ever been in, and her first starring role. As the story unfolds and you can feel Thomasin being blamed for more and more troubles in the family, it is hard not to feel sympathetic towards her.

What I love about films like The Witch are the deeper meanings and metaphors that lurk within. As I watched this film, I saw it as showing the way young women in that deeply religious time could so easily be accused of being a witch. When things start to go bad in any size community, even a single family unit, everyone wants to put the blame on a single person. For Puritans that blame naturally fell on the young women, who were thought of as sinners simply because they were female. Thomasin gets blamed for everything from a cup that goes missing to the blight that overcomes their corn crop. She automatically gets accused because she is the eldest daughter and the only one that has gone through puberty, making her the only potential object of sexual desire. Just for that, she is a sinner and potentially even a witch.

I really can’t say enough how great this film really is. It is the kind of film that will appeal to many audiences because, while it has the overall occult theme, it is much more suspenseful than anything else. The Witch has amazing acting, haunting music, beautiful cinematography, and a compelling story. The only thing that bothered me a bit was there were times I had a hard time understanding what some of the characters were saying. This could be something that was a personal issue, but the combination of the accents and the old English dialogue made me lose some of what was said. I noticed this the most when the father (Ralph Ineson) spoke because he has such a deep, resonant voice. Other than that, it is difficult to find any fault. It is already a top contender for my favorite horror film of 2016. The Witch is a bone-chilling film of paranoia and dread that shows the wilderness is not the only thing to fear.




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.




A group of friends decide to go on a camping trip. Upon arrival, they find out the camp grounds are closed, so they go on a hike instead. Their hike was poorly planned, and they end up hiking back to the car after dark. The friends soon realize there is something in the woods. It is some kind of predator they have never seen, and it will stop at nothing to hunt them all. The friends get chased to a cabin where they find other survivors. The group must band together in order to keep the creature at bay and find a way to escape.

This movie was fun and gory, as most monster movies should be, but it was all painfully predictable. I forced my husband to watch this film with me, and I found myself on multiple occasions looking at him and saying, “I bet this is about to happen,” only to have that exact thing happen two seconds later. To be fair, I watch a lot of horror movies so I can usually predict what is about to happen even with the more unique movies, but this one was one big monster movie stereotype. It made it very simple to determine where the storyline was going to go. Looking back, I believe there was only one scene in the movie that actually surprised me.

Even the characters in the film were stereotypes. You have the nice smart girl, the slutty girl, the jock, the boy next door, the gay friend (a more recent horror movie stereotype), and the jerk that you can’t wait to watch die. The acting was surprisingly good considering it is a monster horror movie. This made up for the lackluster character stereotypes, at least a little bit. There wasn’t a single performance I felt was done poorly, but there wasn’t necessarily a standout performance either. I think a majority of my issues with the characters had to do with the writing and directing, as opposed to the acting.

When it comes to the creature itself, I loved the practical effects. I know this is something I rave about in almost any movie that uses practical effects, but I believe it is a dying art that needs to be appreciated. You can tell the creature is a person with masks and prosthetics, but the only area you can truly tell it is a person is in the arms. The look of the monster was very stylish and cool, which made it enjoyable. The only thing about the creature that really bothered me was that the film never explained what it is.

Just like the use of practical effects, I am also a stickler about plot holes. There are many times during the film where they make a point of saying at least one character had gone to this area for years (and clearly never encountered the monster), and someone obviously lived in the cabin they find before this monster came around. So where did the monster come from? They do make a point of saying the forest area is closed, and at one point one of the characters finds a Marine Corps backpack. This is possibly a hint that the creature is part of some military experiment, but they never bring it up again. I wish they had made it more explicit. Is the creature a military experiment gone wrong, is it an alien, or is it a forest protector awakened because of deforestation? I will never know, and it kills me.

This film is predictable, stereotypical, and has some plot holes that drove me nuts. Despite these shortcomings, the acting, practical effects, and healthy amount of gore still make the film fun to watch. Don’t watch this movie if you are looking for a unique horror movie that surprises you at every turn. This is more the kind of horror movie you watch when you are in the mood for a mindless blood-fest with a monster hunting down some idiot co-eds. Enjoy it for what it is, but don’t expect it to blow your mind.