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Friday, May 13, 2011

Rituals (1976) review

RITUALS 1976 (US release in 1978) aka THE CREEPER

Hal Holbrook (Harry), Lawrence Dane (Mitzi), Robin Gammell (Martin), Ken James (Abel), Gary Reineke (D.J.), Jack Creley (Jesse Crowley), Michael Zenon (Matthew Crowley)

Directed by Peter Carter

"We're payin' for somethin' somebody else did!"

The Short Version: One of the most talked about and yet one of the most obscure horror movies ever made. This Canadian wilderness tale of terror is greatly respected in horror circles and now it's finally available to the masses in an uncut version. The plot has been done before and so many times since, but seldom this good. Very similar to DELIVERANCE (1972), this outright horror film has plenty of suspense to go around ably assisted by an intriguingly witty script and astonishing, sometimes cataclysmic cinematography.

Five doctors on their yearly vacationing ritual decide to enjoy a six day sojourn camping in the wilderness. Not long after they've arrived, they discover they are not alone. Someone, or something is watching, waiting and stalking them--playing a game of cat and mouse that ends in gruesome violence. With no compass and dwindling resources, the remaining men eventually turn on each other pointing fingers in the process; unable to figure out why this unseen stalker wants them dead.

Peter Carter, the director of the obscure ALIEN inspired TV monster movie, THE INTRUDER WITHIN (1981), helmed this ominously suspenseful spooker about a group of friends on a camping trip who encounter danger and death on their six day excursion into the woods. With a resume full of outdoor productions, Carter makes the most of the dense forests and desolate wastelands of the Canadian wilderness. The photography, the locations, the music, the acting and direction all gel to create a satisfyingly uncomfortable viewing experience. It's a shame RITUALS remains an obscurity. It's recent DVD release from Code Red sold out amazingly fast (it has since become available again), so hopefully the film will find the audience that eluded it years before.

The theme of city dwellers battling both the elements and crazed denizens of the woods was done most famously in John Boorman's DELIVERANCE (1972). While that film was less a horror movie than it was an adventure thriller about three men discovering themselves and civilizations darker side, that storyline was reused for later pictures that heightened the horror potential of such a story. Movies like JUST BEFORE DAWN (1980), HUNTER'S BLOOD (1986) and WRONG TURN (2003) are good examples of this. RITUALS (1976) follows this template as well, but abandons slasher conventions and while it's definitely a horror movie, it perfectly balances the cruelty with its characterization. Another 'Campfire Carnage' movie, MOTHER'S DAY (1980), uses the idea of a group of friends partaking in an annual ritual of picking a new vacation spot as a grand getaway. In that film, it's three young women who are stalked and eventually captured by two insane brothers trained to brutalize, rape and kill women by their demented mother.

In RITUALS, a great deal is learned about these five friends before the unseen stalker begins killing them off. Meticulously toying with them before he kills them, this mountain madman utilizes methods that recall similar tropes seen later in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999). Individuals are startled by bizarre, or gruesome objects left for them to see, or are stumbled upon. Once it's finally revealed during the last twenty minutes just who the killer is, his motive is not laid out for the viewer. It may not catch your attention the first time around, but there's a sequence early in the film during a campfire scene with the five doctors getting sufficiently drunk that clues the viewer in on the deranged and deformed maniacs reasoning. RITUALS is one of those movies that's best discovered with very little knowledge of what transpires beforehand--knowing about as much of what's going on as the five men being terrorized onscreen.

Genre fans more akin to newer examples of wilderness horror (that leave nothing to the imagination and splashing severed limbs at the screen every few minutes) may find this exemplary production tiresome with its talky stretches, exposition, haunting, desolate locations (some of these are absolutely stunning emitting an apocalyptic vibe) and minimal gore. Even though very little blood is spilled, the gore present elicits the appropriate shock especially one scene when two of the men awaken to find a surprise left for them sometime during the night.

The practice of keeping the killer in the dark till the closing moments works wonders and there's some strikingly eerie shots of the madman seen standing stationary from afar; watching his quarry, savoring the hunt. There's one shot early on in the campfire scene near the beginning where we see a shadow of a scraggly man in the moonlit glow from the river. Of course, POV shots had been generously used in Bob Clark's BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) and again in Carpenter's HALLOWEEN (1978). The usage of a stalker merely standing at a distance watching its prey was seen in the creepy excess of the even more obscure SHOCK WAVES (1976) and yet again in HALLOWEEN.

Containing a sufficient degree of suspense, this character driven exercise in backwoods terror is an essential title for the serious horror fan and one that has been hotly anticipated since its announcement two years ago. It's been a long time coming, but RITUALS is well worth the wait. Previously available in inferior versions in both stateside and foreign releases, this Code Red version, while bearing a fairly beat up print, is uncut at 100 minutes and the concluding cabin sequence (damaged in a lab accident back in '76) looks far better than the murky mess of all other releases. While this movie deserves a class A release all around, Code Red should be commended for their efforts considering the climate of the niche DVD market these days. Brave the elements to secure yourself a copy of this brooding and shocking entry in the backwoods survival horror sub genre.

DiabolikDVD got over 40 copies in this week they are now down to 8 as of this writing. It can be purchased their at this LINK

This review is representative of the Code Red DVD


Aaron said...

I know I've seen this before but I can't remember where! On TV maybe? Weird. Anyway, great review. I'm not well versed in the backwoods horror genre, but I do like what I've seen thus far, namely JUST BEFORE DAWN and even WRONG TURN, both of which you name-dropped in the review. I'm gonna have to (re-?)watch this one some time.

venoms5 said...

Thanks, Aaron. It's in one of those bootleg DVD box sets under the CREEPER title. That's the cut version running 90 minutes. If you liked JUST BEFORE DAWN I'm certain you would dig this, too. It has that same type of ambiance.

When the Code Red disc FINALLY came out a few weeks ago, the damn disc sold out in a couple of days! Suddenly, people were selling a copy or two on ebay and getting crazy money for them. I guess Code Red only pressed a small number of them initially (say a thousand discs, probably) considering the problems they've had.

This was one of their most highly anticipated and controversial DVD's. The original DVD release was supposed to come nearly two years ago and a cover story on the film appeared in a Rue Morgue issue, but the disc never surfaced due to an alleged problem with the rights owner.

I think you'll like it, Aaron. Plus, Hal Holbrook is the main star! You can't really go wrong with Hal Holbrook in a horror movie.

A. said...

I've seen this in a theater surprisingly! It was on a triple feature on Canada with The House by the Lake and The Silent Partner.

Sadly, I didn't really dig Rituals, I thought the pseudo-monster creature chasing them was sort of lame and couldn't get into the story that much.

The Silent Partner however I really dug. That's probably the most under-rated crime film of the 1970s.

Franco Macabro said...

Dude! Another awesome review of a hidden gem! Thanks for the heads up on this one, I had personally never heard about it, but judging by your views on it, I was totally missing out! Deliverance with a slightly more horrific tone? Count me in! Ritual sounds awesome, again thanks for the heads up on this film and pointing out that its available from Code Red! I will certainly be reviewing this one soon.

venoms5 said...

@ A: I would have loved catching this in a theater. Great film and well worth the wait to see it complete for a change. I hope it sells very well for Code Red, which it apparently is doing at the moment.

@ Fran: If you enjoyed DELIVERANCE, you are almost assuredly going to enjoy RITUALS. Both are very similar, just the Canadian film is definitely heavier on the horror. Thanks for stopping by, my friend!

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

I've never heard of this one Brian, but it sounds very good indeed. I love rural horror movies, and I'll be adding to this my collection post haste.

venoms5 said...

Just make sure you manage to see the Code Red release, Shaun. It's an interesting movie with a high level of character exposition unusual for this sort of film. Still, RITUALS is a curious blend of psychological and visceral horror that falls acts as a bridge between DELIVERANCE and something like say JUST BEFORE DAWN.

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