Remote lake. Relaxation. Nature’s quiet beauty. Turmoil and death at the hands of an unseen killer.
No. 1977. Rituals. An unfairly panned but hardly forgotten bit of Canadian survival horror.
Why the lackluster reception?
One problem was Rituals being called the Canadian version and a blatant ripoff of Deliverance.
Made in 1976, Rituals (original title, far better than The Creeper) wasn’t released until 1977, 78, 79, or 81 depending whom you ask. That’s at least five years after Deliverance. By then, the slew of bad retreads could, at first blush, make Rituals seem Boormanish.
But give Rituals a minute.
Yes, there’s a river. Yes, there’s an attempt to save the guy with the broken leg. Yes, there’s a bumbling Ned Beatty lookalike (Ken James) who’s personality is suspiciously akin to the wheelchair bound kid in Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The similarities end here.
The river is prominent in Deliverance, but Rituals contends with vastly more of the striking, daunting, and sometimes desolate Northern Ontario terrain. It’s possibly more antagonistic than the unseen killer, especially once everyone’s boots vanish the first night in camp.
Also none of these guys is a young, swaggering, compound-bow-toting Burt Reynolds. They’re doctors. They don’t hunt, aren’t in great physical condition, don’t even seem particularly outdoorsy. They neither belittle the locals nor come for the whitewater.
It’s just a fishing trip, except there’s little camaraderie. Before the trip begins, there’s already good deal of pettiness and backbiting. That’s another glaring difference. Not one damn thing about these men is remotely redeeming or likeable.
After he tells his Korean war story, we sense that Harry (Hal Holbrook, pre-Magnum Force, Julia Sugarbaker, and Mark Twain) may be the one who might survive. Our curiosity to see if he escapes is just that. Curiosity. We don’t care much if he does. Not at all if anyone else does.
Why? Because they are not only annoying, but morally shallow. It’s telling that Harry’s first line, “Is it ethical?” is the moral issue he grapples with but ultimately abandons.
I would argue that with Rituals, director Peter Carter also hints at techniques we’ll see ramped up in later slasher movies like Friday The 13th.
Consider the killer’s point of view. Around eleven minutes in, Martin (Canadian actor Robin Gammell) slurs some Yeats: “And what rough beast, it’s hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” Prophetic.
The response is immediate. Some rough beast is slouching toward them, and our first glimpse from the killer’s point of view looks vaguely like it’s through a mask. I’m not saying Carter did this before or better than anyone else, but it’s pre-Jason.
Second, people are marked for death.
Martin is an alcoholic. The first night in camp, D.J. (Gary Reineke) inflates a blow-up doll. The next morning, with everyone’s boots gone, D.J. is the only one with extra shoes. He decides to hike to a dam marked on their map and get help.
Admittedly these aren’t a bunch of hormone-addled teens, but the Tropes Of Doom are all there. Substance abuse, questionable sexual practices, leaving the group, all major 80s no-no’s.
There are also creative uses of both beehive and bear trap, tricks we’ll see again in Sleepaway Camp and Severance. There’s even foreshadowing via severed deer head.
One final element distinguishes Rituals, the killer. Here beginneth spoilers. He technically only kills one person directly. Abel (the Beatty knockoff) dies by accident after the bee attack. Unconscious after falling down a hill, he drowns at the river’s edge.
Martin, leg broken in a bear trap, dies of a concussion received as he’s carried upriver.
D.J. though first to disappear is only left for dead at the dam and found later. Harry, almost inexplicably, finishes D.J. off despite having carried the injured Martin through the increasingly harsh wilderness with Mitzi (Lawrence Dane, another Canadian).
The only person the killer actively kills is Mitzi who he hangs in a tree and sets on fire.
Having already lost his own moral battle, Harry wastes no time anticlimactically eliminating the killer. He makes it out alive and comes to a road suggestive of later endings like it. Were we not quite so remote, like the end of Southern Comfort? Do we save ourselves at the cost of others, like the end of Madison County?
Ah, these roads less traveled.
Much, then, is owed to this regrettably underrated film. From the southern reaches of Norfolk, Virginia, I for one applaud your 70s horror, O Canada.