This Canadian made DELIVERANCE wannabe may be frustratingly little known, but it’s one of the finest films of its type. An extremely low budget work (it’s said to have cost around $600 thousand), it has much of the same crude energy that distinguished better-known seventies-sploitation flicks like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and THE HILLS HAVE EYES.
RITUALS (1977) was a product of the Canadian tax shelter era, referring to a (since-closed) loophole in Canada’s tax laws that allowed investors to write off 100 percent of a movie’s cost. Most of the films that emerged from that era were disposable crap, with RITUALS being one of the few worthwhile examples—although the quality of the surviving prints is strikingly poor. That’s true even of the Code Red DVD release version, which is scratched-up and overexposed to the point that many scenes are difficult to make out (a problem that was even worse in the eighties-era VHS version, which was nearly unwatchable). This, I’d opine, is a primary reason RITUALS has been so little appreciated.
But onto the story: five doctors are flown out to a river in the Canadian wilderness and dropped off for their annual fishing trip. Settling in on a bank of the river, they fail to notice a shadowy personage watching them. This leads to an ordeal that makes that of DELIVERANCE look like a picnic.
The following day the doctors’ boots are stolen by the unseen someone, who then places a staked deer’s head by their campsite. One of the doctors, who had the forethought to bring running shoes, heads off by himself to a dam a few miles away. This leaves his four friends to fend for themselves in the wilderness, sans shoes. Their attacker menaces the guys by tossing a beehive at them and tying a rope across the river for them to cross—with bear traps set up on the river’s bottom.
The doctors conclude that the person stalking them is looking for revenge for some past wrong. He’s evidently playing some elaborate and sadistic game, and leaves clues to his intentions in the form of X-rays and medical discharge papers. As they continue to make their way through the wilderness the surroundings grow increasingly rocky and desolate, and the doctors fall prey to infighting, madness and, of course, death.
The word for this film is grueling. The accent throughout is on pain and fatigue, which are portrayed with a stark and immersive verve. The proceedings have a grit and immediacy that come from direct experience; the film is said to have been shot in sequence, and without elaborate wardrobe or special effects departments. It’s clear when we see the actors stumbling through stagnant water, hauling a stretcher through river rapids and staggering around the edges of a steep cliff that there’s no fakery or “movie magic” involved. The at-times clumsy and unpolished filmmaking, in the manner of quite a few seventies-sploitation flicks, only accentuates the effect.
To be sure, the actors do excellent work even outside the rigors of wilderness filming. The standouts are Hal Holbrook, in one of a number of interesting 1970s-era film roles in which he appeared (see also CAPRICORN ONE and NATURAL ENEMIES), and Lawrence Dane, who also produced the film, and gave himself an extremely meaty role as the most talkative of the five protagonists. Screenwriter Ian Sutherland also deserves credit for the cleverly constructed and inventive narrative, which also finds time for some thoughtful and lyric moments.
The only real fault I can find with the film is the extremely dated seventies-centric music score by Hagood Hardy, which is a constant distraction. It doesn’t ruin the overall effect, though, of a uniquely tough and unsparing piece of work that deserves a much greater profile.
Director: Peter Carter
Producer: Lawrence Dane
Screenplay: Ian Sutherland
Cinematography: Rene Verzier
Editing: George Appleby
Cast: Hal Holbrook, Lawrence Dane, Robin Gammell, Ken James, Gary Reineke, Murray Westgate, Jack Creley, Michael Zenon