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A review of "Tales from the Crypt Presents: Ritual" (2002)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Dull, condescending, and with a touch of misogyny, Ritual is a slog that feels endless at 100 minutes.  If they completely shed the Tales from the Crypt branding and hacked 20 minutes out of the run-time, this might be a marginally good made-for-TV movie, but as it stands, I can't really advise that anybody watch it except out of TftC completism.

My Rating: 2 / 5

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

Alice (Jennifer Grey) is a doctor in New York who prescribes medication for a dying girl in a vain attempt to save her life.  Unfortunately, for plot-related reasons, the medication sends the girl into cardiac arrest and she dies.  Disgraced, shattered, and with her medical license suspended, Alice looks for a job where she can apply her medical expertise without needing proper certification.

As it turns out, she's in luck; there's exactly that sort of position in Jamaica.  Two wealthy brothers, Paul and Wesley Claybourne (Craig Sheffer and Daniel Lapaine, respectively), own an estate there where they farm... something.  The Claybournes are generally well-liked by their employees and the townsfolk, but unfortunately, Wesley is suffering from some ambiguous ailment.  Paul hires Alice to serve as Wesley's personal physician, as his previous doctor died in bizarre (and gory) circumstances.

Briefly, I should mention that the previous doctor's death is virtually the only moment in the movie that genuinely appears to be a scene from a horror film.  It involves him being cursed by a voodoo priest, after which his lab appears to be hit with a sudden blast of heat.  As everything explodes around him, his body catches on fire and his skin melts off.  It's disgusting and over the top, but it's actually menacing.  Prepare for that to go away forever, because the rest of the movie is uneventful aside from Jennifer Grey's oft-nippled tank tops.

When Alice gets to the Claybourne estate, she finds out that Wesley believes he, too, has been cursed by a voodoo priest; he thinks he's a zombie and doesn't believe medicine can cure him.  Alice scoffs and goes about researching his malady, anyway.

Then there's like a whole hour where almost nothing happens.  Everything between the first and last acts of the movie kinda just seems like the soap opera misadventures of a bunch of lame ass white people and the occasional Magical Negro.  Alice starts falling in love with Wesley, and occasionally she hangs out with a new pal, Caro Lamb (Kristen Wilson), and once in awhile you get to see Tim Curry show up for a scene as the lascivious Dr. Hope... but they don't really do anything.  They just hang out at the Claybourne estate and have parties.

Now and again somebody - usually Wesley - has a hallucination.  Eventually Caro and Alice start to hallucinate, too, so she decides to start doing some research.  This is when the movie remembers it has a plot and starts to get back to it.  Through movie magic / science, she finds out that everybody's hallucinations are being caused by an infection of Feline Leukemia Virus, which she promptly cures.  But that's not all.

Y'see, it turns out Paul infected Wesley because he was trying to have him rendered legally incapable of making any decisions regarding the estate, which would free Paul to sell it to land developers and get out of Jamaica forever.  This is evidently a bad thing, since Wesley is (or at least believes he is) a protector of his Jamaican employees, and I guess whoever buys the land would immediately... what, kill them?  I guess I'm lost on why the land developers are evil, but let's just say they are.  Paul has a few compatriots helping him to keep Wesley afflicted, including Dr. Hope (who was murdered after he had a change of heart about the conspiracy) and a crooked police chief.

Once cured, Wesley tries to have his power of attorney taken away from Paul, but the police chief abducts him.  Then Caro and Alice team up to track Wesley down and they trace him out to somewhere in the jungle.  Caro is kidnapped, but Alice eventually uncovers a clearing where a ritual is in process.  A masked voodoo priest is holding Wesley captive, apparently at the command of Paul, while a bunch of Jamaicans dance and chant around him.

Paul reveals that he's going to enact his final plan, which is to have the voodoo priest turn Wesley into a zombie - for real this time.  They have powder that will render him catatonic and completely vulnerable to suggestion, which will finally allow Paul to sell the property and carry out his evil plan.  But at the last moment, Paul is betrayed by the voodoo priest's followers; apparently it's a double-cross, and the masked priest wants to take over.

Alice intervenes and unmasks the priest to reveal... Caro!  Yup, turns out she's actually the secret villain and has been all along.  Caro is actually Paul and Wesley's half-sister, conceived out of wedlock, and in line to inherit the estate if both Paul and Wesley are either dead or incapacitated.  She's about to do away with both and rise to power, except at the last moment, Alice blows the zombie dust in Caro's face and she becomes paralyzed.

The movie ends with Alice and Wesley getting married, and then it cross-fades to the police chief's bedroom, where he has taken Caro's catatonic body and laid her (in a wedding dress) in his bed.  He grins creepily and the credits roll.

Here's Why the Ending Is Pretty Bad

Okay, well, the implied sex slave / endless rape is miserable and skeevy, but that's almost the least of the movie's problems.  (Not really.  It's pretty bad.)

The twist ending just doesn't make sense.  Either the movie straight up lied to us about every scene involving Caro before the reveal, or she's just a really terrible villain who keeps forgetting she's trying to manipulate and/or kill the Claybournes.

It's one of those twists that can't actually happen unless you ignore pivotal scenes from earlier in the movie.  For example: there's a scene where Caro hallucinates while driving her motorcycle, and she ends up freaking out and crashing off road.  To what end?  Does this mean she intentionally infected herself and had a hallucination just to throw off any suspicions people might have of her?  Even if that made sense - and it doesn't, because nobody was suspecting her of anything, anyway - couldn't she have pretended to have a hallucination instead of actually infecting herself?  Couldn't she have just hung around in the kitchen and waited until somebody walked by and then suddenly been like, "Oh God!  It's a giant bat!  Man, I think I'm under a voodoo curse!"?

And why would she let Alice get close to the ritual site at the end, anyway?  She knows exactly what Alice is up to the entire time.  She knows that Alice knows about and can cure the FELV infection.  Why not use that knowledge to her advantage and stop Alice from getting to Wesley before she can cure him?  For that matter - why wouldn't she at least tell Paul that Alice is onto them and knows about their scheme?

The ending is also shitty because it ends up being a "Scooby Doo" reveal.  It may sound weird for me to say this because I normally endorse skepticism, but I think the "the supernatural is all fake and everything has a real world explanation" approach is a bad idea in this case.  It betrays the spirit of Tales from the Crypt, which was a franchise that gleefully abandoned all pretense of reality or plausibility and ran head-first into the world of the paranormal, usually while cackling and making a stupid pun.

Guess I'd have to get to that sooner or later.

The Part Where I Gush About Tales From the Crypt

So, I don't want to out myself as a fanboy, but I really loved TftC.  Anybody remember when I reviewed House of Long Shadows and I talked about how Halloween Horror?  That's pretty much TftC's bread and butter.  I know it's a groaner of a show, with some of the worst jokes you'll ever hear, some of the worst melodrama you'll ever suffer, and more than its fair share of schlock - but it taps deep into the nerve of Halloween.  A night with Tales from the Crypt is like being transported back to October 30 when you were nine years old and swapping stories with your friends about which trick-or-treating route delivered the highest payout, and you caught a brief flicker of fog out the window and suddenly felt affable and unnerved for reasons you couldn't explain.

So you can probably guess what I'm going to complain about next.  The thing I find most disappointing about Ritual is that it doesn't feel at all like a Tales from the Crypt production.  I would attribute this to rose-colored glasses, but I binged on some TftC not long ago, and I rewatched Demon Knight less than a year ago.  TftC is fresh in my mind.  I know TftC when I'm looking at it.  And Ritual ain't it.

It's too serious.  It's too somber.  It's too much "thrilling" and not nearly enough "chilling."  It comes across as a slightly voodoo-themed Scream knockoff more than it does pulpy horror.  There's not even a twist ending, for Christ's sake.  Sure, sure, there's the reveal of who the Voodoo Master is, but that's not what I mean.  TftC would have ended with an epilogue where Alice and Wesley were hanging out and Alice said, "Gee, I sure am glad we saved the day," and then Wesley would crane his neck and say, "Yup, saved the day just in time for... braaaaaaaaains."

Jesus, even Bordello of Blood is more respectful to the franchise, and that movie pretty much killed everyone's careers, didn't it?

Hell, you don't even get the Cryptkeeper.  How do you make a Tales from the Crypt production with no Cryptkeeper?

Well... funny story.  According to Wikipedia, Bordello of Blood was such a bomb that the studio decided they couldn't release another property with the name "Tales from the Crypt" attached to it.  So even though Ritual was filmed and planned as the third theatrical release, they went in at the last minute and scrubbed out all signs of TftC.

This... this is... sigh.  Okay, look.  I understand studio meddling.  I even defended it (sort of) in my review of The Thief and the Cobbler.  I know that studio execs know way more about marketing and production and making money than I could ever dream of, and I'm sure their input is invaluable.

But who the hell looked at this situation and said, "Oh, I know!  It's Tales from the Crypt that's the problem!  Not a lackluster script with terrible and/or absent jokes, but rather the multiple-decades running property that happens to be the only identifiable and marketable thing about our shitty not-zombie movie!  Let's get rid of that, and we'll just end up with something ambiguously horror-themed that's sure to make literally tens of dollars!"

It's just mind-boggling.  Who would want to watch Ritual other than TftC fans?  I know for a fact that I sure as hell wouldn't have bothered if I didn't know it was associated in some way.

But here's where things get a little weirder.  From what I've read on Wikipedia, the movie originally did contain scenes of the Cryptkeeper introducing and closing out the film as usual, and apparently this footage is available on the DVD release (but not on the version I saw on Netflix, so keep your expectations low if you go watching).  So originally it would have actually been a proper TftC film.  But it still doesn't actually resemble the franchise I know and love.

How does the same production staff - yup, Zemeckis's name is on the film - manage to make something so thoroughly bland, forgettable, and straight-laced?  It's as if they not only tried to scrub the TftC brand, but also its tone.

It's a real shame.  A little bit of camp was exactly what this needed.

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