Despite the birdsong and insect chirps amplified into a heady, almost hallucinatory soundscape, Ritual (2012; aka Modus Anomali) opens with a sylvan idyll marked mostly by tranquility – until, that is, this natural Eden is disrupted by the sudden emergence of a human hand from the earth, as a man frantically digs himself out of a shallow grave. It is a trope recognisable from any number of zombie movies – although the man, far from being undead, will turn out to be John Evans (Rio Dewanto), even if he knows this only from the ID in his wallet. John, you see, has no idea how he came to be buried in this forest, or even who he is, as one film trope (zombies) gives way to another (amnesiac agent).
It is a programmatic introduction to the workings of this fourth feature from Indonesian writer/director Joko Anwar (Joni’s Promise, Dead Time: Kala, The Forbidden Door). For Ritual strives repeatedly to squeeze new thrills and surprises from hoary old genre clichés – the cabin in the woods, the machete-wielding killer, the (wo)mantraps and massacres, the cat-and-mouse and slash-and-dash – by constructing for itself a singular and devious narrative perspective. As our forgetful protagonist – and we along with him – race to work out whether he is hero or villain, victim, perpetrator or mere witness, of unspeakable crimes committed against a vacationing family, the narrative landscape is peppered with signposts all too recognisable from the slasher, the survival thriller and The Most Dangerous Game, but mapped out in a disorienting manner that makes it all too easy to lose one’s bearings.
Newly resurfaced from his rabbithole, John is like Alice in Wonderland, and the notes, videos, alarm clocks and caches that he finds scattered about the place are like so many bottles marked “Drink me” and cakes labelled “Eat me”, mocking and manipulating our hero into strange and new perspectives on his circumstances. The question of who is leaving these breadcrumbs in John’s dark forest of fear and confusion may – at least until the satisfying final reveal – remain a mystery, but of course Anwar himself is the ultimate manipulator. For he stages a deceptive scenario that leads us by the nose right to where he wants us, while simultaneously disinterring the contradictory nature of our own voyeuristic desires in even watching a film like this.
A key scene: in a holiday cabin, John finds the bloody corpse of a pregnant woman (Hannah Al Rashid), already the mother to two teenagers. The likeness of all three is also on a family photo that John has in his wallet. Alongside the woman’s body is a digicam full of family videos. In one clip (which John later watches), as the woman is seen making herself up in the bathroom mirror, John’s voice is heard saying, “You are so pretty, like one of those Stepford Wives.” The woman smiles back to the camera and at first confuses John with her response (“Which one, Nicole [Kidman]?”), before he realises, “Oh, the remake! I only saw the first one.”
The domestic bliss captured on this video is as doomed to end as the idyll with which Ritual began – yet as John watches the clip, searching for clues as to what could have happened to this family that he no longer remembers, we notice that the video-within-a-film involves discourse on genre cinema. John and the woman are discussing a film (The Stepford Wives) preoccupied with domestic surrogacy and the anxieties of domestic perfection – and they are also overtly acknowledging the way that genre films are often not just made but remade. All of which will turn out to be reflexes of Ritual‘s own themes – although viewers (including John) may not quite grasp how until reaching an ending which makes all the disparate elements in the film cohere in an ingenious, unsettling manner that just might send you “back to the beginning” again (as one of the notes that John discovers instructs).
After all, the ritual in which John is somehow both willingly and unwillingly engaged mirrors the paradoxical entertainments enjoyed by any repeat viewer of horror, seeking – in all those variant repetitions, ritualised games and vicarious thrills that come with the genre – to escape the jaded ennui of everyday life and to fulfil a little sadomasochistic fantasy. Along the way, so deftly managed are the film’s twists and turns that you are unlikely to see the wood for the trees – and once you have found your way back, paradise lost is hard to regain.
Ritual is released on DVD by Terror Cotta, 16th May 2016