If you were being pursued by a wily killer in the woods, could you survive? Don’t look for me alive, that’s for certain; at the first sign of trouble I would be tangled up in a bush, or drown in five inches of water. Let’s not even start on the deadly wildlife, chopping wood, making a fire, or the inconvenience of being slain on holidays. That last point is a bit of a sticky one for the protagonists of Rituals (1977), a Canadian spin on Deliverance that would probably pair better with Jeff Lieberman’s Just Before Dawn (1981). And if you’ve seen that intense shocker, you’ll know you’re in good company.
Released in Canada in July, a full year before the States, Rituals received some good notices but performed poorly with audiences, and was quickly forgotten. But time has a path to redemption, especially for films that deserve that reappreciation. Rituals, with its well-rounded characters and precarious setting, is definitely worthy.
Perhaps the best thing about Rituals is its placement on the horror timeline: post-Deliverance; post-The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; post-Jaws; and the same time as The Hills Have Eyes. The film flits between these inspirations, but has a strong enough presence to make its own impact. Now, that is. No one cared at the time for more gritty outdoor mayhem, I guess; or maybe the Canadian promo machine could have used an extra crank. Either way, it can now be seen as an effective companion to the films listed above.
We open at a seaport in remote Ontario; five friends - all physicians - are waiting for a biplane to drop them deep into the Canadian wilderness. As they wait, board, and then fly to their location, they constantly bicker, fight, and laugh, giving us the sense of a lot of history between the group. We have: Harry (Hal Holbrook), who left the rest to practice elsewhere in the city; Mitzi (Lawrence Dane), the loud and obnoxious surgeon; Martin (Robin Gammell), who brought along his brother D.J. (Gary Reineke); and Abel (Ken James), the photographer who puts in the most back-breaking work.
The first night at camp is uneventful; booze, pot, passive-aggressive remarks flying through the air - a normal camping trip really. But when they wake up, they realize their shoes are missing from the camp. Not a big deal, they all brought a spare pair of shoes, right?
Wrong. Only D.J. has, so he straps his on and heads for the dam located 10 miles away - it has to be manned, correct? When D.J. hasn’t returned in a day, the remainder of the group decide to head for the dam as well; good news, since someone has left behind clues that he’s none too keen on doctors. When they’re not yelling and fighting, our troop has to deal with a deformed backwoods madman (and war veteran) well versed in booby traps and military maneuvers; little does our mutated militia man know that Holbrook also served, and he’s more than ready to take on the wilderness weirdo...but will they survive to tell the tale?
Rituals spends all of its runtime with the main characters, so it’s a good thing the script by Ian Sutherland (Improper Channels) makes them well-rounded, if not a little obnoxious; hard to avoid with loud waterfalls and the impending doom of the suffocating forest, yet in line with the events unfolding around them. It helps with this cast; some of the best Canadian talent around at the time, plus Holbrook, bring a lived in sense to these people, of friendships stretched to the breaking point by bad decisions and mistrust.
Are the campers their own worst enemies? Absolutely, but they certainly don’t get any help from our killer, who enjoys leaving bear traps in the middle of a stream for his new citybound friends to find; it’s his territory, and besides being butchered by doctors, he does not share their enthusiasm for bedside manners. A strong sense of retribution runs throughout the film; the doctors must pay for their hubris and positioning as God’s Right Hand, even if they weren’t the surgeons who mangled the
There’s little gore in Rituals; it’s there to punctuate rather than underline the tension, something that British-born director Peter Carter (High-Ballin’) handles quite deftly, filming in continuity to ensure his actors go through it. And boy, they sure do. It’s especially impressive to see Holbrook doing something physical on screen; so used to diplomats and generals, his character is down to earth, compassionate, and determined, through his very being and physicality, to make it out of the woods intact. It’s a great performance.
There is a strong sense of retribution that runs throughout the film; the doctors must pay for their hubris and positioning as God’s Right Hand, and the killer - until the end reveal - is kept in squinting shadow and unreliable lighting. Spookily effective at giving the killer an aura of inescapability.
If a viewer goes in expecting Deliverance, they will be disappointed. However, filtered through the more feral (and horrific) strains of backwoods horror like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Rituals plays as a very effective warning against the dangers of camping. Five out of five doctors agree.
Rituals is available on Blu-ray from Scorpion Releasing.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: OMEN III: THE FINAL CONFLICT [Class of 1981]