Rituals (1977)
By: Stuart Giesel on April 16, 2013 | Comments
Analog Man can not live on DVD and Blu-ray alone. In this ongoing column we blow the dust off our VCR's and travel back to an ancient time where VHS tapes ruled the earth. Our mission? To re-discover those forgotten gems that are yet to receive the digitally enhanced 7.1 channel surround sound treatment...

Deadly Prey VHS Cover Art

Director: Peter Carter
Screenplay: Ian Sutherland
Starring: Hal Holbrook, Lawrence Dane, Robin Gammell, Ken James
Country: USA

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Inspired by Devon's "Analog Retribution" review of the awesomely terrible Deadly Prey, I thought I'd dig up and dust off an old classic - though this is by no means in the same league as Deadly Prey. It's actually good. No, scratch that - Rituals is excellent, and unsettling as all hell. And although it's been released on DVD in a couple of versions, the discs are either now out of print and prohibitively expensive, or as part of a pack in a cut form, so now's as good a time to recall what makes this such a riveting watch and hope for a decent (uncut) DVD or Blu-Ray release in the near future.

When I first watched Rituals all I could think was: goddamn. Even now, years later, it's lost none of its impact. Rituals might be one of the most intense movies of the 70's, right up there with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Exorcist. It feels designed to burrow into your skull and lay eggs of unrest there. It's also one of the most underappreciated gems you're likely to stumble across.

The plot is simplicity itself: a group of five doctors get together every year for a holiday - this year they decide to trek through the Canadian wilderness. However, in true Deliverance style - which surely must have been one of the biggest influences on Rituals director Peter Carter and writer Ian Sutherland - this doesn't go exactly to plan. They find themselves tracked by an unknown foe. At first what they believe to be a prank, in the form of the theft of the doctors' boots, soon turns nasty as they realise that it's not just someone out for shits n' giggles, but someone who truly wants to hurt them, make them suffer. The doctors find themselves in a hellish battle for survival within a hostile, unforgiving wilderness.

Rituals has a number of things going for it. First and foremost is the standout performance from the legendary Hal Holbrook, who truly shines as Harry, the hard-headed, rational but ultimately most compassionate member of the group who truly comes to learn what he's made of as he is forced to make some truly terrible decisions. Holbrook anchors the film; his character can be relied upon to come up with a suitably cynical or rational line of dialogue that prevents Rituals from becoming too sentimental or eye-rollingly histrionic. He realises the deep, stinking shit that he's in and acts accordingly. Unfortunately he has to deal with his friends, who prove to be as large a stumbling block as their tormentor; for one, his buddy Mitzi (Lawrence Dane), no coward himself, is not particularly willing to help his friends when it comes down to the line. The script is taut, dispensing only the necessary pieces of information to the audience as the film goes along, but never feeling like it's exposition. The characters feel like real people, not ciphers or objects ready to be diced up for the thrill of it. And the atmosphere of the film is a real kick in the balls - for a lot of the running time there's a genuine creepiness in the air, a true menace that you don't find in too many films. Maybe it's because the characters are somewhat relatable and it feels all too real. Maybe because, like Duel, we hardly ever see who's causing the distress. Like Texas Chain Saw Massacre - which I believe Rituals has as much in common with as it does Deliverance - Rituals tightens its grip on the audience without you realising it. Pretty soon you're sitting with your fingers stuck into your palms wondering what horrors will befall the doctors next.

The survivalist aspect of Rituals is another key ingredient. You truly feel the exhaustion of the characters and begin to wonder what you would do in a similar situation. Stay or flee? Turn the tables on your tormentor? How? Would you act like Mitzi and be willing to ditch your comrades when you soon realise that it's a death sentence trying to haul one of them across the landscape in a makeshift stretcher? And, hell, if your friend is on the brink of death and in agony, would you be able to put him out of his misery? And how do you fight a foe when you don't know who he is, or indeed how many of them are out there, and especially when you're hungry, cold and exhausted.

Make no mistake; this is a truly bleak and terrifying film. It doesn't really rely on gore to make an impact - though there are a couple of shocking moments - but rather the audience's imagination. For most of its running time, the group are pursued by an unknown enemy, and come across hazards that are by no means out of the realm of possibility - hostile weather, animal traps, debilitating weakness, hunger and injuries. As the nature of the attacks become more sadistic, the doctors become more desperate and turn against one another. The psychological torment proves to be as debilitating as their physical torment. Holbrook's character Harry makes the point that even if their tormenter kills him, he sure as hell won't demean him, which strikes at the heart of what this film is trying to say, if it has a meaning at all. And some of the games their pursuer plays are truly horrifying, to say the least.

The locations used, along with the cinematography, is another factor that makes Rituals work so well. Whilst we start off in thick green country similar to that seen in Deliverance, the landscape soon devolves into a striking but desolate wasteland, perhaps mirroring the emotions of the characters, though this sort of philosophical wankery is probably reading too much into the story.

If I had to nitpick, the ending doesn't quite satisfy, although I struggle to think what would have been a suitable resolution. The bad guy's identity is shown, and it's a bit of a disappointment. When the perpetrator of all this horror is left hidden, your imagination tends to run wild, so perhaps it would have been better to leave some things unshown? Of course, then you risk alienating your audience by being too obtuse. Maybe it's a lose-lose situation when much of your film is so artfully tense.

Some will gripe that, compared to today's films, Rituals is too slow-paced and too bloodless to truly make an impact. Well, those people can masturbate to Hostel Part III, and leave us to revel in the dirty, charged atmosphere that Rituals conjures so effortlessly. Does it have as much impact as it did in 1977? I can't answer that for sure, given that I was still drawing on the walls in my own poo at that time. All I can say is that Rituals still holds up to this day because its deliberate, realistic nature is something that's all-to-rare in this CGI-befucked era. It gets under the skin like few modern films are able to.

So is it too much to ask for a nice, uncut version of Rituals on DVD or Blu-Ray that doesn't cost a mint? This film is ripe for rediscovery, especially when similarly-themed survival films like Deliverance are so widely available and acknowledged as classics of their genre. You know what? You can keep Deliverance -- I mean, sure, I love that film, but Rituals freaked me out to a far greater extent and, in my honest opinion, is by far the more effective film. It doesn't need horrifying man-on-man rape to make its impact. It doesn't need to tack on a contemplative, almost philosophical, ending. It feels more primeval, more back-to-basics. It's is as much a horror film as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and deserves to be spoken about in the same breath. Rituals is another reason why the 70's is, in my mind, the best decade for films: it's brutal, unsentimental, unflinching and utterly compelling.
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