After receiving a distressed phone call, a man arrives at a seedy highway motel to find that his estranged wife has killed a stranger who is connected to a dangerous cult.
A man. A woman. A seedy motel room. A dead body. This scenario has launched so many entertainments throughout the years, it’s hard to imagine where it originated. Was it born within the pulp fiction pages of the early twentieth century, or do its roots reach even deeper? Perhaps this premise was presented through pantomime to a live audience in a shared space. I believe they used to call those “plays,” but don’t quote me.
With the cinematic stampede of zombie thrillers and “Hey gang, let’s film a ghost that’s going to (spoiler alert) murder us all during the finale!” found footage offerings that have surfaced recently, a lack of originality in concept certainly isn’t a strong enough reason to rebuke. After all, it’s about where a motion picture takes us, not where it begins. “Ritual,” the latest from After Dark Films, puts a fascinating spin on the set-up and attempts to run with it, stumbling and even stopping for a nap once or twice along the way. It’s these lulls that threaten to sink this visually stark effort from writer/director Mickey Keating.
Taking a cue from Gasper Noe’s “I Stand Alone” at the onset, we are warned by a title card of explicit violence to come. (“Well, duh!” responds everyone who has ever rented a horror flick from Redbox.) An exquisitely shot opening introduces us to Lovely (Lisa Marie Summerscales) as she relaxes on a beach. An unseen stranger offers her a light, and they flirt innocently. Their voices become drowned out by the foreboding synth score, giving the quick scene a “Zodiac” feel and inspiring an immediate sensation of dread straight out of the gate.
The man is Tom, played by Dean Cates. As the film picks up some time later, we learn that he and Lovely are now estranged marrieds. The honeymoon was over after that first beach stalking, I guess. Upon receiving a frantic call from Lovely, he drives to the motel she phoned from. Within the first ten minutes, Keating struggles to keep “Ritual” progressing at a suitable pace. An inexplicably lengthy driving scene leads to an equally painful conversation through the motel room door as he persuades her to let him in. Why this hesitation on her part in the first place, I haven’t a clue. Didn’t she call him?
Once in the room, Tom discovers the compulsory corpse, a bar pick-up Lovely stabbed to death in self-defense after he’d become violent. Giving in to her pleas not to call the police, Tom decides to high-tail it the hell out of there. As she is cleaning up, he searches the dead man’s car, because apparently his fingerprints weren’t already on enough of the victim’s belongings. He discovers a video camera in the trunk, and decides to watch its contents there instead of within the safety of a room not containing a dude one of them killed. The footage is that of a human sacrifice, performed by masked men all bearing the same tattooed symbol as Mr. No-Pulse. Now comes the high-tailing.
That is, until Tom realizes in mid-escape that he’d dropped his Zippo (engraved with his full name, of course) back in the room. When the two return to the motel is when “Ritual” wakes up and really starts to pop, albeit 50 minutes in. Tom enters to find that Lovely’s play date is still very much alive, holed up in the bathroom and laughing maniacally. Meanwhile, she waits in the truck and is approached by a seemingly jovial gentleman who resembles Saint Nick, which is a look that gives me the creeps any month other than December. Facial coiffure aside, veteran character actor Brian Lally brings a sinister and soft-spoken elegance to a role that could have been played much broader. He is one frightening presence.
Once Bad Santa makes his intentions clear and the other sect members arrive, Lovely and Tom barricade themselves in the room, and the fight for survival is afoot. “Ritual” shines from this point on, concealing its flaws with a visceral, tense final third and thoughtfully avoiding full exploitation territory. This is a lesson to all budding film makers, by the way. Lapses in logic and minor continuity errors are often forgiven and sometimes missed completely when the story moves. Plus, I won’t poke fun as much should I review it.
Keating clearly is talented behind the lens, and his gritty style finds small pockets of low-tech flourish in spare presentation. Also commendable is his Lynchian sense of an ambiguous time setting, incorporating new vehicles into a reality devoid of cell phones and where the fashions could belong to any era of the past fifty years. Or, perhaps that’s just Texas. Despite some truly awful audio quality in spots that could have easily been cleaned up in post-production, he utilizes jarring sound cues potently to amp up the tension.
If only his script had found a groove much sooner. Cates and Summerscales are both fine actors, but not magicians. Their bitter arguing over relationship woes earlier on is not only monotonous thematic filibustering, but mind-boggling to boot. Is a crime scene you’re planning to flee really the time and place to have a domestic spat? For fear of being too hard on “Ritual” (because there is a lot to admire), I won’t even touch the pointless discussion that occurs between two of the cultists and slams on the venture’s brakes once more before the credits roll.
Quick random thought: What if the video camera had already been in the room, and our leads called the cops immediately like rational individuals, only to discover that the officer on duty was one of the bad guys? That would have gotten the ball rolling much sooner, and perhaps saved “Ritual” from being more than just a moderately entertaining time-passer. But, that’s backseat screenwriting, a nasty habit of yours truly. Pity I have to do it at all.