Remote river. Relaxation. Nature’s quiet beauty. Turmoil and death at the hands of an unseen killer.
1980s? No. 1977. Rituals. An unfairly panned and largely 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 and 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 Boormanesque. But give it 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 Franklin Hardesty in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The similarities end here.
The river is prominent in Deliverance, but Rituals contends with a vastly more striking, daunting, and sometimes desolate Northern 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, and 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, post-Magnum Force but pre-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 (Robin Gammell) slurs some Yeats: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” Okay, that’s a pretty heavy-handed whack with Ye Olde Clubbe Of Foreshadowing, but it’s still 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 definitely before Michael Myers and Jason. Relatedly, the Big Bad’s name is Matthew Crowley. Hmm…Crowley…where have I heard that? Oh yeah, Victor Crowley in the Hatchet series. Interesting.
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 of which will become 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 more foreshadowing, a little more subtle this time, à la severed deer head.
One final element distinguishes Rituals–the killer’s lack of actual killing. Here beginneth spoilers. To summarize, Abel (the Beatty knockoff) dies by accident after a 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 wounded and 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). The only person the killer actively kills is, in fact, Mitzi whom 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 after all, 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. Or slouched. Or something.
Available on Fandor and for rent on Apple TV+