(AKA The Creeper) 1979, Starring Hal Holbrook, Lawrence Dane, Mitzi, Robin Gammell, Ken James, Gary Reineke. Directed by Peter Carter.
Although rooted firmly in many of our best genre traditions, Rituals is an unorthodox Canadian film that offers a terrifying twist on the rural revenge movie. UK director Peter Carter, who also made the enjoyable trucker tale High Ballin' and the classic Gordon Pinset film The Rowdyman, succeeds in heightening the loss of control found in other Canadian revenge movies like Death Weekend and Shoot by matching it with the uncertainty and danger of more traditional horror films.
Five doctors, Harry (American import Hal Holbrook), Mitzi (Lawrence Dane), Abel (Ken James), Martin (Robin Gammell) and his Expo ball cap-wearing brother DJ (Gary Reineke) are flown by bi-plane deep into the Northern Ontario wilderness. There, they start their annual hike deep into the forest to relax and get away from the boredom of their daily lives. After finding a good place to camp for the night, they gather around the campfire for a few drinks and laughs, teasing each other about their careers and their livesa blow-up doll is even seen at one point.
This light-hearted "boy's club" atmosphere is a little too similar to the early comraderie-building scenes in Deliverance for comfort, but at least it means that we're prepared for when things start to go wrong-- like when the doctors wake to discover all of their boots have gone missing. DJ, the only one who packed extra shoes, decides to go to a nearby hydroelectric dam to get some help while the others wait at camp. After a day of waiting, the remaining doctors find that someone has infiltrated their site to plant a deer head on a stick. Disturbed and confused about who might have done this, they wrap their feet in clothes and attempt to catch up with DJ. Of course, it doesn't escape their attention that it might be DJ who is perpetrating this campaign of bootless, animal decapitating fear.
On their way to the dam, more trouble befalls the shoeless doctors. At a rest stop, a large wasp's nest crashes down from the trees and they are forced to tear through the wilderness and jump into a lake. While this doesn't seem all that frightening, Abel manages to knock himself out on a rock in the shallow river bed and drowns. But then, something good happens-- they spot one of DJ's guide ropes across a river, and decide to follow it. But their unseen guest has a surprise in store for them-- a viscous ambush that badly injures Martin. Harry drags him back to shore to fix him up, and the group tries to figure out their next move. In the wake of the frustration and fear, some of the group's hidden struggles start to unravel on screen. Harry and Mitzy are constantly at each other's throats, and Martin turns out to be an alcoholic whose practice has been in steady decline for many years.
Floating Martin down the river on his backpack works fine until a run-in with a waterfall that leaves Martin unconscious, forcing the two others to carry him. When they finally approach the dam, Harry and Mitzi clash once again. Mitzi wants to leave the catatonic Martin, but Harry convinces him otherwise. It's probably a good idea to take him along, because they awaken the very next morning to see the head of long-forgotten Abel mounted on a pole. Hungry and tired, the survivors know they must carry on to find DJ, and solve the mystery behind the stalker who is trying to humiliate and destroy them for some unnamed revenge.
John Boorman's Deliverance may have spawned many Canadian imitators (like Trapped), but Rituals steps out from the shadow of that great film and holds it's decapitated head up high. Instead of hinging on the more "literary" device of forcing the protagonist/audience to reconsider long-held ethics, Rituals becomes a much more authentic document of what four or five scared and confused characters would do if faced with a life or death situation. For example, the characters in Deliverance must come together and strengthen their relationship (at least in the short term), but the opposite is true in Rituals, which depicts the complete breakdown of the male group dynamic. Tension-frought groups were a mainstay of 1970s Canadian films (see The Clown Murders, which Lawrence Dane also appeared in), and while Rituals isn't completely immune to the inherently slow pacing of these sequences, the breakdown remains an interesting and successful part of the plot.
While other rural revenge films give you a nice array of pretty scenery to look when you get bored with the action on the screen, Rituals really ups the ante by being one of the few revenge films to really use the Canadian landscape as a character. The locations are consistently instrumental to plotting and mood, and towards the end of the film, the claustrophobic forest and cramped river settings even give way to beautiful, sweeping vistas and valleys full of rolling clouds.
Rituals was actually made in 1976, two years before it was released. While this was not uncommon to happen to a Canadian film, it places the film in the same general period as many of our best, and most honest efforts of the 1970s, including Black Christmas and Death Weekend. Led by Robert Fulford's attack on David Cronenberg, critics began to rail against Canadian genre film shortly afterwards, and as a result, when Rituals was released in 1978, it was panned. But one has to wonder if the distribution delay did not seriously damage the credibility of the film. Fondly remembered today, Rituals is a dark and unsettling film that still prompts collectors to track down rare uncut versions. Recommended.