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Rituals
(a.k.a. The Creeper)
(1978)
 

Director:Peter Carter                     
Cast:
Hal Holbrook, Lawrence Dane, Robin Gammell


Most people consider the slasher movie genre an invention of the United States. While it's true the United States had a large part in making and defining the genre, other countries had a hand in its invention - even before 1978's Halloween. Italy giallo movies of the '70s, such as Twitch of the Death Nerve (a.k.a. Bay of Blood) had many of the trademarks one finds in the slasher genre. And Canada - home of an endless supply of boring art movies no one wants to see - made its own contribution. Some of the best slasher movies of the '80s - Prom Night, Terror Train, and Happy Birthday To Me - are from the Great White North. And in the 70s, before Halloween, Canada made two notable entries in this genre - Black Christmas, a movie that deserves its cult reputation; and Rituals (made in 1976, but released in 1978). Rituals isn't very well known (mainly because it got poor distribution), but apparently it has a cult. Tiny, but a cult all the same. I'd seen this movie years ago on video when I was a teenager, but I didn't remember much about it, except that my father actually for once seemed interested in something that I had brought back from the video store for myself. So when it was on television recently, I decided to take another look at it, and I'm glad I did. Rituals may not have the gore, the sex-before-death, and the dumb teenagers other slasher movies have, but it has qualities that most slasher movies don't have - like suspense and disturbing elements. You can add another person into the small cult surrounding this movie.

This movie differs from most slasher movies in that the central characters are middle aged. At the beginning of the movie, five vacationing doctors are preparing to be flown into an isolated wilderness area called The Cauldron of the Moon, which appears to be somewhere in Ontario. Four of these doctors are played by unknown Canadian actors, and the other doctor is played by American star Hal Holbrook, since Canada has been unsuccessful in making its own "star" system (mainly because since most Canadian movies are so unappealing, no one goes to see them. This Canadian "stigma" also seems to explain why there's never any definite evidence this movie is taking place in Canada.)

The men are flown deep into the wilderness, and they then start their hike deep into the forest. All is fine during their hike, right up to their first night of camp. The next morning, they discover all of their boots are missing. The only member of the hikers who has a spare pair of shoes sets out to a dam, where there may be people and help. The next night, the remaining four hikers are terrified by the appearance of the head of a recently killed deer propped up on a stump just a few feet from camp. Scared, they make the hard decision to hike out (shoeless) themselves, and to try to catch up with their friend. But someone - or something - seems to have an agenda to make their escape impossible.

I'll deal first with the few complaints I have about Rituals. Though it would be kind of unfair to call this movie a rip-off of Deliverance, it's clear that this movie would not have existed without that older movie. Rituals' actors aren't terrible, but their performances are so frequently alike, it is sometimes hard to tell the characters apart. It doesn't help that, aside from a little look into Holbrook's character, the other four characters are also pretty similar. And though this "slasher movie" has some sort of explanation as to why this misfortune has fallen on the protagonists - and reasonable explanations are not often found in many other slasher movies - viewers will have to be very alert to some key dialogue and actions. Otherwise, they'll still be mystified at the end. In fact, even if you pay attention, what you'll still end up with is a somewhat fragmented explanation that'll need the blanks filled in by yourself. (*) And speaking of dialogue, there are a number of areas where the sound quality makes the dialogue either very hard or impossible to make out.

Neverless, the dialogue, though difficult at times to hear, actually is pretty interesting. It may not bring much individual insight to the characters, but it actually sounds relaxed and unscripted. When the characters speak, we soon see they are likable professionals, who at the same time like to goof off a little on occasion. They don't talk much about the problems at hand (at least at first), but whenever they open their mouths, it's never boring. Later in the movie, as their outlook becomes more bleak, we see them cry, argue over some very tough decisions, and act the way they look - grizzled, exhausted, and full of pain. We believe that they are cold, tired, and downright scared. This actually makes whatever they are doing, even what seems to be more mundane stuff, more of a challenge, and more gripping. The hell the characters are forced through is unbelievable.

The movie generates an edge that, though almost unnoticeable, gives the movie a compelling air around it. Director Peter Carter manages to keep the suspense up throughout the movie, surprisingly using very little gore. He somehow slips unnoticed past our defenses and gets inside us, slowly building the feeling of desperation and tension. The movie becomes strangely disturbing in a way that I find difficult to explain. His direction technique of mainly presenting the situation as it is is surprisingly effective. This even extends to the musical score; there's almost no music played during the course of the film. The situation that the men are in is horrifying by itself, so there are no distractions to lessen its feel. Carter also uses this technique so that when he does temporarily divert from it - as when he puts two silent cuts in the river crossing scene - the diversion makes more of an impact. These diversions includes the climax, where he finally makes the atmosphere explode, with a climax that's bloody, suspenseful, and terrifying, with characters taking drastic actions that are hard to watch. It's an incredibly tense sequence.

Visually, Rituals is also very impressive. The movie does suffer from that grainy look so frequent in Canadian movies made in the '70s. But the outdoor scenery, shot during a period of good weather (not common in Canadian film), is magnificent. The wooded area during the first half of the movie looks both beautiful, and tangled enough to make us believe we are far from civilization. In the second half of the movie, we are taken to new locations (such as the remains of a forest after a forest fire years earlier) that are so striking, it's like the characters are on another planet. Many shots of these sequences were filmed while fast-moving clouds were above, and the shadows that fall on this area are eye-popping. And the movie's haunting final shot was something that was permanently etched in my mind from my first viewing of the movie.

It's a shame that Rituals isn't better known, but it's a bigger shame that the Canadian government now would never fund a movie like this. Because of their present narrow-minded thinking, which withholds funding for any movie smacking of commercial qualities (unless it's made by David Cronenberg, or it's in French), it's a certainty that other movies just as good as Rituals never got made. Perhaps if Rituals does find the audience it deserves, the Canadian government will seriously reconsider their agenda. Though you'll probably have a tough time finding this movie either in Canada or the U.S., for since it was given a quiet and early video release, like the men in this movie, it's out there but lost.


UPDATE: William Norton provided me with some information about the movie that I neglected to mention originally:

"Rituals actually has name Canadian actors.  Lawrence Dane (who produced the film) was in Scanners, Happy Birthday To Me, Child's Play 4, and many big Canadian films and directed Heavenly Bodies and I think he also has a actor's workshop in Toronto once.  Robin Gammell did several known Canadian films, and did some Hollywood films like 1976 Paramount film Lipstick which was shot in U.S. Rituals actual became a classic for critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, attacking the film in 1982 when it opened as Creeper.  They made it DOG OF THE WEEK two weeks in a row. The print you saw on video, IF it ws EMBASSY VIDEO (US video release) is actually a TV print! Embassy video used many TV prints for the more lesser known titles like Rituals, and many World Northeral Kung Fu pictures. If you saw the Astral Bellevue Video version (the Canadian video) its the uncut one."

While writing the review, I wasn't sure whether Lawrence Dane was "known" enough. I had heard of him, but I wasn't sure if he was known enough to be a household name.

I originally did see Rituals via the Astral Bellevue Video version, and it was indeed uncut. So on seeing the TV version (distributed by Paramount Television), it was even easier to see what had been cut out than not seeing the uncut version beforehand. That Astral version, by the way, is pretty rare, even here in Canada.


UPDATE 2: Reader Austin Andrews sent me the following:

"The entire movie is available for download at

http://www.kkrs.net/cinemapophome/catalog/suspense/rituals.html

It needs Windows Media Player, so Mac users won't be able to view it."


UPDATE 3: Andrew Dowder wrote in with this:

"Love your site; your reviews are top-notch and a terrific read.  Just letting you know that Rituals has been released by Code Red.  It features a crisp transfer and is uncut.  Also includes an interview with star Lawrence Dane.  Your site is one of the few with a detailed review, so I thought you and your readers might find the info of interest.  Thanks, and keep up the great effort!"

Thanks for your letter, Andrew! If any of you readers want to buy this DVD, simply click the Amazon link at the bottom of this page.


* If you've seen Rituals - or don't mind having the mystery revealed - you can click and drag in the area below, between the brackets, to highlight and uncover the hidden text, which states my theory as to exactly why the misfortune is happening to the doctors. Naturally, this is a SPOILER ALERT!  (From the little evidence provided, it seems to suggest that the doctors are being stalked by a World War 2 vet who was injured in combat, and subsequently mangled by doctors on the operating room table. And from this, I assume the killer has a grudge against all doctors.)

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)
Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)

See also: Sunday In The Country, Skeletons, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie

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