Review: Rituals (1977)

Written by Ian Sutherland
Directed by Peter Carter
Starring Hal Holbrook, Lawrence Dane, Robin Gammell
Released July 21, 1977 (Canada)
RT 100 min.
Home Video Nostalgia Family (DVD)
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARituals (1977) is a refreshing pre-slasher horror film because its victims are not horny teenagers or scantily-clad women.  They’re middle-aged professional men.  Well, on paper at least, the five doctors on their annual outdoor excursion together are professionals.  However, when they’re out of their white coats and they’ve set down their scalpels, they’re sometimes as annoying as horny teenagers or scantily-clad women.  This is refreshing too, though.  It demonstrates that we’re all really the same when we’re being stalked in the woods by a savage killer.

In one respect, Rituals reminds me of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).  In both movies, the raw intensity with which potential victims react to life-threatening danger is unsettlingly relentless.  It’s not only the screaming in Rituals, though, it’s the inane arguments the men have when they’re under pressure and their circumstances plummet from bad to worse.  In particular, Mitzi (Lawrence Dane) handles diversity poorly and blathers on and on, picking fights whenever he can.  He also flip-flops about what he believes is their best course of action.

You can’t blame the guy, though.  He experiences what I consider to be a realistic reaction.  The same can be said for Martin (Robin Gammell), who steps in a bear trap while crossing the rapids.  Mitzi and Harry (Hal Holbrook) fashion a makeshift stretcher to carry him over land and float him down the river.  The entire time, he’s either babbling incoherently or singing children’s songs.  In most movies, he’d probably be passed out.  However, in Rituals, he’s acting “normal.”  A wounded man probably wouldn’t remain silent simply so that we can hear the other dialogue.

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It takes a while to settle into this rough, gritty movie.  While there’s some spectacular scenery, there are no cinematic flourishes to give it character.  It relies on only “down and dirty” filmmaking.  Early in the story, when someone steals their boots while camped overnight and the men discover a stag’s head mounted on a pike, the men perhaps jump to conclusions about what’s happening to them.  It’s interesting that they assume this is some kind of revenge for an action they performed as doctors.  It makes you wonder what kind of doctors they really are.

While this theory may (or may not) explain who (or what) is terrorizing the men as they attempt to make it to the dam, where they assume they will find other people, Rituals does provide clues along the way and an unambiguous conclusion.  The tension keeps escalating until the climax is almost unbearable to watch, not just for the 1970s, but by today’s standards, as well.  Shot mostly in the dark so that the less you see clearly, the scarier it is, a physical presence separates the two survivors, where their ethical and moral differences separated them earlier.

Written by Ian Sutherland and filmed entirely in Ontario by director Peter Carter, Rituals is an example of “Canuxploitation,” a term coined by Paul Corupe in 1999 that describes all genres of Canadian-made exploitation cinema.  It joins other mid-1970s horror films such as Black Christmas (1974) and all of David Cronenberg’s early works.  Through most of its 100-minute running time, you may question the movie’s inclusion in the horror genre.  By the time it’s over, though, you’ll have no doubt that it belongs.  If you can wait for it, the climax is brutal.

Today’s passport stamp:CanadaPart of the Countdown to Halloween.  Tomorrow… Denmark!

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