Directed by: Peter Carter
Written by: Ian Sutherland
Starring: Hal Holbrook, Lawrence Dane, Robin Gammell & Gary Reineke
Reviewed by: Brett H.
ďHoly Mary, mother of God. Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Just a matter of time.Ē
It goes without saying that the roads of Canadian horror have been littered with films of the slasher variety. These feature films remain the true legacy of terror engraved on the nationís output of scares; sans the notoriously twisted works of Maple Leaf Macabre king, David Cronenberg. Films like Prom Night, Happy Birthday to Me and Terror Train (not to mention, a personal favorite of mine, Funeral Home) are slasher "epics", and those that came before them remain much more influential and interesting. Black Christmas is the legendary one that most talk about, paving the way for the cinematic panic-attacks that the Halloween series would deliver. It seems fit that a classic such as Black Christmas would influence another in Halloween, but itís humorous that a little known Canadian slasher by the name of Rituals would influence (or at the very least, predate) the backwoods slash of icon Jason Voorhees and his many, many imposters. Contrary to the teenage hellraisers and vixens that would often pop up in the Friday the 13th series, Rituals features all male characters in their thirties and forties and is the fire to the Friday the 13th seriesí ice. No sex. No drugs. But, these Canadian boys do enjoy a nice swill every now and again.
A group of five doctors annually celebrate a years worth of hard work with a little vacation. Each year they frequent a spot of one member of the quintetís desire, and itís all on him. This year, D.J. (Gary Reineke) takes the boys to a little place called the Cauldron of the Moon. According to Indian legendry, it is the part of the earth that collided with moon and thus is a very magical place to be. The doctors are frequently at odds with one another, arguing over ethical issues, finances and the fact that they like to just plain bicker at one another. After a nightís rest, the group wakes up the next morning to get some quality guy time in, fishiní under the bright sunlight in the fresh outdoors. The glee is short lived, however, when one of the men realizes that everyoneís boots have gone missing.
D.J. had told everyone beforehand to bring a backup pair of boots, and he was the only one that did so. No one is going anywhere fast through vast, dangerous wilderness without proper footwear, so he takes it upon himself to head up to a nearby dam to save the day. Later on in the evening, the boys get themselves quite a scare. While taking a squirt, one of the guys discovers the carcass of a deer propped on a stick, which scares the bejesus out of everyone. They decide to take off on foot, confused as to who could be messing with their mindsÖ or worse. Trouble follows them every step of the way and the doctors begin to question if one of their ďmistakesĒ with various patients has come back to haunt them. Harry (Hal Holbrook) has to take charge as strange things begin to happen and lives suddenly become endangered. If these occurrences didnít spook the guys enough, their friends severed head on a branch sure will. If you go down in the woods today, youíre in for a big surpriseÖ
Rituals is truly a defining slasher film. Although much less known than its brothers, cousins and further mutations as a result of inbreeding, it certainly isnít due to lack of quality. Slasher enthusiasts celebrate celluloid masochism; they thrive on cinematic pain for pleasure. Without a doubt the subgenre is full of fun and there are all kinds of treasures to find, but it is an area of horror where stereotypes arenít merely accepted, but are encouraged. Itís for this reason that films like Humongous or The Forest are incredibly well known for such obscurities. The amazing cover/poster art and quirky taglines didnít hurt, either. Unlike the typical slasher film, Rituals doesnít go out of its way to thrill the audience with a cheap kill or tit flash; it will have you writhing on the edge of your seat with suspense.
The most unique quality of Rituals is the fact that the environment the victims are in are simply as harmful as the deviant prowling through the night to torment them. Fierce rivers, thick brush, wasp swarms and other rugged terrain are substantial obstacles in the way of the characters, oftentimes by the killer himself. A psychological aspect is introduced right from the get go, as the killer is shown to be very manipulative along the lines of a Jigsaw. Itís almost as though heís paving the exact road for them to take throughout the wilderness, and seeing as we are dealing with doctors rather than happy go lucky teens, they know it too. Nearly every slasher film has a motive, and the one here is interesting, yet seemingly unrelated to the actual doctors. But, the killer does indeed have a beef against doctors in general, and thatís all we really need. Itís a bit loose, but it gets the job done. The killer is never glimpsed besides as an eerie silhouette in the distance until the very end (accompanied by some genuinely creepy music), when his ghoulish visage is finally revealed.
The ending can only be described as intense, to say the least. Stakes are high and one man is left hanging in a very uncompromising position while the other one frantically struggles to keep himself alive. Iíll just leave it at that. The film is very realistic overall, Mother Nature is a beast and it shows here. When watching the actors trudge through the forest and small rivers, you just know that this film played them right out. With all the good qualities of the film, there are some negatives. Other than Harry, the doctors arenít especially likable and the aforementioned motive is merely adequate. Also, the magic hinted at during the explanation of the Cauldron of the Moon really goes nowhere. The film has the familiar Night of the Living Dead vibe in which the characters are constantly at odds and morals and ethics in medicine is discussed by the characters frequently. Not to mention low points in the characters lives are brought up during this fight for survival, and that makes it all the more personal.
Itís hard to come by a film that is more Canadian than Rituals. The setting is as dangerous as the madman and although they are doctors, the guys really come off as what youíd normally consider as working class. For what itís worth, there are a few chuckles worth hearing in the film itself as well. It didnít quite cause the stir it should have upon release, but it did get a decent sized following because Stephen King stated he enjoyed it and Siskel & Ebert hated it. Most likely itís because Rituals was lumped into one of the many Deliverance inspired movies of the era; which includes another Canadian horror classic, Death Weekend, directed by William Fruet. It seems as though these movies werenít respected just because they werenít actually Deliverance, and itís a shame because these two in particular are quality films. Most movies borrow from other movies, knowingly or not, and Iím not overly concerned with a movie like Rituals not being entirely original. Iím worried about it being an entertaining film, and that it is. One thing to be cautious of is that the American VHS and public domain DVD releases (under the title, Creeper) are from a TV print, obviously omitting everything objectionable and appealing. This review is from the Canadian VHS release from Astral, and is the uncut and essential version to see. I wonít lie, it is very, very hard to come by and the print quality is not too pleasant. Nonetheless, Rituals is a gripping nail biter that will please slasher and horror aficionados immensely, and is one of the key pieces to the puzzle of Maple Leaf Macabre. Buy it!
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