RITUAL IN THE WOODS
A Classic Horror Story (15)
Starring: Matilda Ingrid Anna Lutz, Francesco Luzzo, Peppino Mazzotta
Review: RJ Bland
Italy is a country that was synonymous with the horror genre during the 1970s and 1980s. Innovative and talented film-makers like Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci were breaking new ground with their stylish, surreal and often very violent movies; Deep Red, Black Sunday, Suspiria, Tenebre, Zombie, A Bay of Blood, The Beyond – the list could go on. For nearly two decades, American and Italian horror dominated the genre but by the time we entered the 1990s, the well had dried up. Sure, some of these maestros were still making features but their success and quality fell of a bit of a cliff. Michelle Soavi's Dellamorte Dellamore (1994) is perhaps the last of the great Italian horror films. That's not to say that there haven't been any genre films made during the last 25 years or so, it's just that none of them are worth shouting about. Now on Netflix, A Classic Horror Story (directed by Roberto De Feo and Paolo Strippoli) has the opportunity to remind us that Italy is still worthy of its place on the genre map.
A group of strangers share an old beaten up RV and head to the south of Italy, each with their own specific reason for deciding to be a part of the car pool. Young professional Elisa is on her way to have an abortion (in part due to the wishes of her controlling mother). Young couple Sofia and Mark are just road tripping it around and having fun. Ricardo is a middle-aged doctor who...well, we're not quite sure why he's on his way south. And finishing off the group is Fabrizio, the owner of the RV, who is a film student and is has got family to visit in the Calabrian mountains. Although it's quite a diverse group, they all get on pretty well but any group bonding is stymied when their vehicle crashes into a tree after it swerves to avoid something in the road. When they come round they realise that it is morning and for some reason, their vehicle is not on the roadside, it's in the middle of a clearing in the forest. Their efforts to get back to the road are unsuccessful and as the realisation dawns on them that they are in a spot of bother, they discover a rather creepy looking wooden building – and that's when things start to get really weird...
For the first 45 minutes or so, ACHS is mostly successful in its attempts to whip up a heady sense of intrigue and mystery. As is so often the case with films with a hook this ambiguous (think In the Tall Grass, Yellowbrick Road), the speculation and discussion phase is the best part. To some extent, nearly all films that defy logic encounter some issues when they reveal the how and why. And although ACHS's story logic sort of makes sense, ultimately it's the execution that lets it down.
For the closer we come to the reveal, the veil begins to lift and ACHS shows its true colours. The title itself indicates a degree of meta, but the film suffers in the same way that Fear Street Part One: 1994 does. There is a difference between paying homage and parroting and although it borrows from very good genre movies, they are all too modern for it to feel in any way fresh or original. Whilst the first half of the film feels decidedly Texas Chainsaw, it soon feels like an amalgamation of The Ritual, Midsommar and Cabin in the Woods. On top of that, it openly references a clutch of other horror movies but rather than feeling self-aware, it all feels a bit glib and only serves to dilute any remaining tension. There's a level of critique aimed directly at the state of the horror genre (and within Italy itself) but it's a bit too scattergun to really land.
The fact that ACHS loses its way amongst the many tropes (that it is ironically trying to comment on) is perhaps more frustrating because there are aspects that are worthy of recognition. Directors Roberto De Feo and Paolo Strippoli are clearly very technically competent people and the film has a lush and lucid quality that makes it really easy on the eye. The script may be a bit of a mess but the visuals are not. Whilst there isn't a lot of action (until the last five minutes or so anyway), there are a couple of really quite brutal scenes that will make most hardened genre fans wince. And although it may well be coincidence, the film also has that Fulci eye thing going on too. The cast deserve a little mention as well because although ACHS ultimately flatters to deceive, that's in no part down to the promising young actors who do a pretty decent job. Matilda Lutz's performance may not match her turn in Revenge but her on screen presence and charisma makes it hard not to root for her. Ukranian actress Yuliia Sobol also marks herself out as one to watch for the future.
Unfortunately though, the film is weighed down by its muddled messaging and cookie cutter approach. It's probably worth a watch just for the diverting first half but if you want to see something that subverts and pays homage to the genre at the same time, our advice would be to rewatch Cabin in the Woods instead.