The Ritual Monster: The Unforgettable Terrifying Monster Of The Horror Movie

If you haven’t yet watched The Ritual on Netflix, there are major spoilers ahead.

In some horror films, the monster is the element that sticks out the most. A terrific movie monster may save an otherwise forgettable movie, even if the acting isn’t up to par, the plot is something you’ve seen before, and the characters make some stupid mistakes. The Ritual, directed by David Bruckner, is a rare horror movie that actually has a strong cast, a plot full of surprises, and a deeper emotional element to the storyline that’s uncommon among macho movies these days. (Read a review by Phil Brown here.) A genuinely fantastic movie monster that is an exciting addition to the genre, but maybe needs a little further explanation for the viewers at home, takes it a step farther than all of that.

The Ritual, which Joe Barton adapted from the same-titled novel by Adam Nevill, centres on a group of college buddies who go hiking in Sweden. What begins as a men’s retreat to remember a lost friend quickly devolves into a struggle for survival as things start to get very, very weird. The group stumbles upon mysterious symbols, a supposedly abandoned cabin, and a headless effigy in the attic while exploring a maze-like woodland, but these are only the beginning of their problems. They are being stalked through the jungle by something that is killing them one by one. And although though The Ritual does a good job of giving amazing glimpses at this creature from the first movie and providing just enough background information to satisfy most audiences, we wanted to delve a bit more.

Haleigh Foutch, one of our own, chatted with Bruckner about his film, in particular, its conclusion and the creation of the original monster. Bruckner discussed the creature’s mythology and the choice to hold off on the complete disclosure until the very end of the film:

These contemporary men have stumbled into something that resembles an ancient Norse Viking nightmare. that, in the end, the movie should always take a chance. anything it might imply. We therefore always knew that we intended to convey what it was in some manner or another. Like I said, there are many films I adore that keep back information till the very end, but we just felt that this was not the case with this movie.

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So, yeah, we had to highlight it, which required us to kind of literalize not only how it appears but also how it chooses to present. Since these Norse gods have the ability to change their appearance, they can select how they want to appear to you. Therefore, what you’re seeing is how it wants to be understood, and it’s a tactic it uses to frighten and exert control.

One of the coolest things about The Ritual’s monster is its bizarro design and how it was revealed piecemeal over the course of the story — a pair of human-like hands somehow extending from a too big a body here, an antler there — all up until the final act where it is fully revealed in all its horrifying glory. This film is worth seeing just for the monster, even without the compellingly human story that it centres on.

Guillermo del Toro’s concept artist Keith Thompson, who has worked on Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Pacific Rim, The Strain, and Crimson Peak, joined the team on The Ritual. Here is a wise statement about the creature’s design by Thompson:

On the basis of those chats, he threw a number of photographs across the desk. One of the things we liked most about this was how difficult the construction seemed at first. You could, in a way, create a pretty straightforward visual mystery around it.

We have certainly covered a wide range of influences on Norse mythology. We were aware that it would be some kind of animal god, but we also frequently discussed whether it would have sentience and how you might give it human characteristics. How could an animal form read with a human intelligence, and how could you conceal the difference between an animal and a person?

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In this particular session, Keith would sort of perform an initial design on a few different things, and then I would have some thoughts. Keith had numerous versions on those types of chats. And he had shown me one of his unique creations that was based on our chats, and I fell in love with it right away.

For much more on the monster and how the SFX and VFX crew brought it to life, as well as much more on the film itself, be sure to read the entire interview. Bruckner provided some information on the monster’s inspiration, but we were interested in going into more hypothetical detail.

We discover that the monster is known to the hill people as a Jtunn, a powerful entity from Norse mythology, during a conversation with them during the film. The hill people ritually sacrifice animals to the monster in order to survive. The way these beings are described has evolved considerably over time, sometimes with Odin and other gods being considered to be their descendants and other times being associated with bad ideas like trolls. They are afraid to utter its name, although in The Ritual, this specific huge elk-like Jtunn is referred to as a child of Loki. The Jtunn giantess Angrboa, who was also the mother of the Midgard Serpent and Hel, and that boy Loki are the parents of the enormous wolf Fenrir.

To see how The Ritual handles the Odin connection, let’s stick with it. Odin is known for numerous things, including hanging himself from the World Tree Yggdrasil and impaling himself with the spear Gungnir to reveal the secret meaning of rune magic. The Jtunn in The Ritual has a practise of capturing anyone who is unlucky enough to become lost in its forests, even moose or elk, and then impaling them on branches high up in a tree, many of which have been engraved with various runes. This one has the power of Odin.

But after I saw the complete unveiling of this monster, another mythical creature—the Nuckelavee—came to mind. The name is very esoteric, so you’d be excused for not knowing it; ironically, I first came across it in the anime series RWBY. Think “centaur from Hell” when picturing this nightmarish creature from Orcadian mythology, which was originally Norse mythology. It mixes aspects of both horses and humans, essentially resembling a combined horse and rider. It is one of the most despised demons in the area since, unlike many mythological beings, it has no redeeming characteristics that can be called upon, its very breath kills crops and sickens livestock, and it is thought to be responsible for plagues and droughts. The Nuckelavee technically originated as a sea monster, yet it is capable of terrestrial migration (though, obviously, it cannot cross fresh water).

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So it looks like The Ritual took some of the creepier design aspects of the Nuckelavee, combined them with attributes contributed to Odin and the Jōtunn, and literally built them into the body of a massive moose/elk for good measure. One of the best movie monsters in recent memory—a really terrifying synthesis of myth and nightmare—is what came of it. Therefore, if you ever find yourself lost and wondering through the forest, keep in mind that you can either submit to the arrogant Jtunn or resist him by standing your ground and fighting.

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