The Ritual Killer (2023)
The Ritual Killer was directed by George Gallo (My Mom’s New Boyfriend, Columbus Circle), written by Bob Bowersox (99 Percent Sure, Bamboo Shark), Francesco Cinquemani (The Ghosts of Monday, Beyond the Edge), Luca Gilberto (Twins, Adda Passa ‘a Nuttata), and Jennifer Lemmon (Chocolate City, Two Coreys), and stars Cole Hauser (Acts of Violence, Higher Learning), Vernon Davis (Hell on the Border, A Day to Die), Morgan Freeman (The Minute You Wake Up Dead, Paradise Highway), Murielle Hilaire (Ivany, Captain Marleau), Giuseppe Zeno (Blanca, Il Paradiso Della Signore), Brian Kurlander (Black Balsam, A.C.O.D.), and Peter Stormare (Fargo, Horror Noire). It’s about two detectives and an African studies professor teaming up to catch a potentially supernatural witch doctor committing vicious murders.
The Plot: Scripts written by a pantheon of people are usually either very good or very bad, with little variance. A promising premise is provided by the four credited writers but gets lost in between the various subplots that just barely connect the film’s pieces.
In Rome, Inspector Mario (Zeno) has just lost his suspect, Randoku (Davis), who meets with Farner (Kurlander), who hires the former to commit crimes as of yet undisclosed. In Mississippi, detectives Boyd (Hauser) and Kersch (Hilaire) are dealing with their own problems in the form of an arrest gone wrong and an angry captain Marchand (Stormare) breathing down their necks about it. There’s a fundamental disconnect between the subplots and the way they progress, as The Ritual Killer offers part of an answer in the form of Randoku’s employer but could’ve easily held back to make a better reveal, and all of the Mississippi-set introductions are jarring and hazily connected in their relationship with the timeline.
With children’s bodies being found in the small town, Boyd and Kersch contact African studies professor Mackles (Freeman) to pin down the beguiling symbolism and brutal causes of death to figure out what this is all about. “Muti”, a dark form of God-given power, is the credited methodology, but that’s as far as The Ritual Killer takes its setup. From there, the movie progresses as blandly as possible, with all of the expected beats in play. That wouldn’t be a terrible thing – disappointing, sure – if the real kicker wasn’t the lack of a worthwhile ending.
Even with four writers, there’s nothing special or even good about the plot. Motives are eventually clarified, but still soundly below average in imagination and execution.
The Characters: Little effort went into the acting and even less went into fleshing out the backgrounds and personalities, which can almost always act as a cushion for cases like this.
Boyd is barely a character. Some dialogue exists to show his appreciation for soccer and a good drink, but The Ritual Killer’s only real substantial trait for the detective is his lack of emotion after being unable to save his daughter from drowning. It could, and should, be a backstory that finds its way into Boyd’s actions and attitude, but it hardly ever does, leaving Hauser to fill in the gaps. This too is something that doesn’t happen, as it appears the normally solid actor was only in this for the check.
Similar inferences can be made about Freeman, as his acting is equally disinterested, but it’s admittedly not an easy task to pull something out of a nothing character. Mackles is a culture specialist, so he’s logically able to deduce the meanings of the messes and messages, but that’s all he does. He’s allegedly afraid of getting involved with muti, but no reason for this is provided, and The Ritual Killer doesn’t have a script to back this up, as the character shovels fries in his mouth while talking about dead kids.
Randoku is given a very delayed characterization, with his history and personality not coming into full view until the last act. Regardless, he’s just an interchangeable serial killer whose monosyllabic speech is only distinct from other on-screen serial killers due to his accent and markings. Davis gives the best performance in the film, but this is tempered by his shadowy nature, making the most interesting character into a cultural essay rather than a real human. At least he’s a character, unlike everyone else.
The Thrills: A hefty number of procedural beats make up the first half of Gallo’s film, but when its visuals are pared down and its dialogue analyzed, it’s clear that it intends to be more of an investigatory thriller; a goal which it only sometimes reaches.
Chases are normally a good way to generate suspense and illustrate the limitations of all parties involved in them. The Ritual Killer intends its own to be showcases for the killer’s power but ends up putting emphasis on the suboptimal physical abilities of the cops. Starting with Mario and the Italian police force following Randoku should be exciting, but through their bumbling behavior, (several cops stop running before reaching the criminal) and dismal choreography don’t make either party imposing. More sequences like this arrive when Randoku searches for another ritual victim before getting into a fight with the cops, who somehow can’t find him across the street from the bar it happened at. So much for “detective”.
Muti is the method, and it’s given quite a bit of detail by Mackles and backed up with the visuals of the killer’s practices and their aftermaths, with most corpses coming back without all that they were taken with. It’s said that the enactor of these rituals must take specific body parts for corresponding reasons. Some bodies come back without eyes, which are taken for foresight, some come back without hearts, which give power, and so forth. Lurid and insane doesn’t begin to describe the practice, but it makes for a presence that The Ritual Killer is uncommon in possessing.
Escalation in difficulty should rise with each death, but the script doesn’t allow for this to be the case. Or maybe it does, since Gallo opens the film with Randoku being a known killer in Rome, so perhaps he’s already nearing maximum ability. With this not being specified, I’m going to assume that the script just didn’t know how to ramp up, with the killings staying rather steady in their carnage and the killer’s abilities staying equally static.
Examination brings forth the best aspects of The Ritual Killer, with a rare kind of cultural foundation that opens doors for the film. However, it’s only ever exciting in these scenes, not in between them.
The Technics: A modest budget and a fledgling helmer don’t raise hopes for the filmmaking tenets of the feature. Thankfully that didn’t lead to a complete misfire, but the movie still ends up being painfully average in mechanical merit.
Urgency is what’s sorely lacking in the minds of the writers and director, with a crime spree that spans continents barely registering to anyone but Boyd, Kersch, and Mackles despite who knows how many similar deaths in Italy and at least three in Mississippi before a significant effort is made to stop the bodies from mounting. A glacial pace isn’t helping The Ritual Killer’s case either, with too many scenes devoted to explaining what the audience has yet to see deflating what’s to come.
Visually, nothing about the movie sticks out. Gallo has always been a writer/director whose works only occasionally reach the heights of “decent”, so this is just another notch on that generic belt. Atmosphere isn’t generated within the Mississippi setting or with the sleepy score, and a listless staging of shots and scenes keeps all but the makeup from being remotely memorable. It’s bland direction at its peak.
With a cultural basis in its story and a rather loopy motive for all that happens, The Ritual Killer should be better than it is, but even with the combined powers of four writers and a few great actors, it’s just another ritualistic viewing of a bad movie. A practice that’s all too familiar.
The Ritual Killer is available on VOD and Streaming Platforms from Redbox Entertainment.