When a movie starts in an insane asylum with the main character in a padded cell that’s usually not a good sign. And that’s just where writer/director Chris Warren begins Dark Ritual, with Jennifer (Natali Jones, Silhouette) screaming and hallucinating about ripping the skin off of people’s faces. Her doctor (Debbie Rochon, Bloody Ballet, Doom Room) tells her Aunt Chris (Lisa Wilcox, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, The Church) that her condition is getting worse.
Then we flashback to Jennifer going to the house her brother Brian (Sean Brison, Psychic Experiment) had been living at. He’s vanished without a trace leaving all his, and several other people’s, belongings behind. She hallucinates about finding a video on his computer warning her to leave the house. This sets off a series of hallucinations and nightmares about Brian’s fate. And the only way to stop them is to return to the house and try to find out the truth.
So much of Dark Ritual’s plot is made up of hallucinations that it very quickly becomes hard to tell what is actually happening and what is all in somebody’s mind. It also becomes hard to care which is which as well because none of it makes any sense For example, Jennifer’s friend Kenny (Omar Adam, The Egyptian Book of the Dead) sees Aunt Chris appear from nowhere and try to seduce him then minutes later it’s a topless woman being dragged into a mirror by a tentacled creature.
Very little actually makes any sense. About halfway through Dark Ritual Jennifer goes looking for the landlord, Steve (Parrish Randall, Circus of the Dead, Hairmetal Shotgun Zombie Massacre: The Movie). Instead of finding him, she’s is sucked into a TV and winds up in a reality where like a ghost. nobody can see or hear her. She watches as her brother’s friend cuts himself on a Mayan axe. He bleeds out over a preserved heart which comes to life and vanishes into the wall. Brian just says “That’s weird.”.
Maybe if the effects had been better it might have worked on a purely gonzo level. There are a lot of effects, frequently quite gory. But the CGI creature that keeps popping out of walls and mirrors looks incredibly bad. The scene where its tentacles rip a girl’s shirt off hentai style actually had me laughing it’s so poorly done. The practical effects aren’t much better and frequently don’t match their CGI versions.
Is it all in the mind of a woman who has been institutionalized since childhood? Or is this what drove her mad? It doesn’t really matter because you’ll have mentally checked out long before the end of Dark Ritual’s 86 minutes. And going back and trying to figure it all out would probably put anyone in the cell next to Jennifer’s. And that’s too bad because there was obviously some ambition and effort put into the film. Unfortunately, the talent behind Dark ritual wasn’t up to that ambition.
I want to be kind and say that this was intentional and Warren was trying to make Dark Ritual a psychotronic film like Horror House on Highway 5 or Abomination. The “Mayans” who are obviously Caucasians in various coloured body paint would fit into that kind of mindset. As would the long stretches of a videotaped lecture we keep seeing. But it feels more like he was going for an Evil Dead vibe and missed badly.
If you do make it to the end you can watch for the film’s one surprise, a cameo from Ted Geoghegan the writer/director of We Are Still Here and Mohawk and an associate producer on this film.
Dark Ritual is available to stream via Summer Hill Films. You can check their website for more information.
UPDATE – Thanks to Adrian over at Movies and Mania for pointing out the fact that Dark Ritual and the director’s previous film Imago have not just a similar cast but the same one. After a bit of digging, I found this notice from the production company for a re-edited version titled In the Blood and a Facebook page that dates back to 2009. So apparently it’s not a new film but something that sat around, unreleasable until the COVID-induced lack of new product made Summer Hill desperate.