The Chronicles of Horror Movie Night: RITUALS (1977)

by: Damon Swindall
July 20th, 2011

After starting in Washington D.C. nine years ago, Horror Movie Night has expanded to include chapters in Austin, Dallas, and Chicago. GATW’s own Brian Kelley is the originator and programmer of this illustrious weekly Wednesday night tradition which features a “classic” horror film. Each week I will be reviewing/commenting on the past week’s selection so do your best to find the film, most of which have not made it past VHS, and follow along. Better yet, start your own chapter!

RITUALS VHS cover

This week at Horror Movie Night we went the more serious route. This is something you can tell by the release date alone, 1977, before watching a single frame. The '70s, for the most part, meant business. Surely horror fans will agree it’s nice to find a new old film to fall in love with in the genre. In Peter Carter’s film RITUALS (aka THE CREEPER) an angle is explored in the backwoods slasher world that results in some real fear and suspense.

A group of five friends head out into the wild for a week-long escape from the daily grind. All they want is to get back to nature and have a little fun discussing their profession; all are doctors though some have left the profession for other things. They spend their time ribbing with one another, taking jabs at their patients and the medical system in general. Soon their trip takes a turn for the worse when all of their boots are mysteriously stolen. This might be odd enough but once one member of the group dies it becomes apparent that someone is out to get them. What they did, they don’t know. All that’s on their mind is getting out of the wilderness alive.

I figured we were in for some serious horror this week and boy was I right. Things start off light but once in the woods the majority of joking is definitely cast aside. You could liken this more to DELIVERANCE than any other film I can really think of, but even that is a bit misleading. Both films feature buddies running around, hiding in and trying to escape from a heavily wooded area while being chased, but the mysterious elements here in RITUALS add so much more to the overall punch.

Head on a stick

We never see more of the assailant, Matthew, other than his silhouette until the last couple of minutes of the film. By that point we have learned only what is absolutely necessary about him and his reasons behind the attacks. Because of the shroud of secrecy it makes the abuse all the more intense. This is a man who has been seriously wronged and wants to give some of that pain, emotionally and physically, back in spades. Our camping docs are not just stalked and slashed in a fashion similar to a FRIDAY THE 13TH film but rather hunted and driven close to the brink of insanity. Matthew is out to make their lives the hell his has been for years and it all starts with stealing their boots from their campsite. This might not sound like a big deal but not only did most of them not bring any other footwear, it’s a great mindfuck to take away something so basic yet necessary to these men no used to the wild.

At this point a member of the group leaves to find help and the others are attacked by a brilliant weapon – a huge fucking beehive! Not only does this rule as a weapon but thanks to this scene we get the great listing in the credits for “Bee Specialist”. In the chaos to get to safety the first of the group dies. Matthew never really touched them but it spotted from afar as they realize the severity of the situation. This marks a real turn in the film. Now shit gets real.

“It must be nice to know you have God on your side.”
“Yeah, but sometimes your better off with a good lawyer.”

The awesome Hal Holbrook
The main cast is limited to just the five friends. There are a few others peppered in at certain points but the majority of characters in the film is narrowed down quite a bit. Even the five are only together for a short time. As one guy leaves in search of help, another dies and a third is severely injured and unconscious most of the time it leaves us with just two carrying the film. These two men are played to perfection by none other than Hal Holbrook (THE FOG) and Canadian actor Lawrence Dane (HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME). Together they struggle with right and wrong and what to do with their ailing friend. So much of the extreme torture put on these men is mental and Holbrook and Lawrence’s transformation over the course of the film portrays this in quite a frightening way. It’s one thing to see them all together joking and taking shots at one another’s ethics around the campfire but as their food and water intake decreases and Matthew’s games increase, the harsh realities bring out the worst in both of them.

While the mental anguish you see them go through is just as evil as anything on the more visceral blood and guts side of things we still have a few good bits of shocking imagery. There are severed heads on sticks (both animal and human) and a gruesome member of the group is severely beaten and tied to a chair with a metal rod shoved through his leg. Pretty crazy moments, but none to the level of the climax where Harry is cauterizing a wound on his own leg by lighting gunpowder in it as another is hanging from a tree moments from being burned alive. Talk about an intense few minutes!

A bad day for this guy

The make-up FX is great during these brief moments of physical violence but once we actually get a glimpse of the harsh villain and see his deformed state we almost understand and sympathize with everything he has done to the vacationing doctors. That’s not only a compliment to the talents of make-up and FX person Carl Fullerton, but to the powerful acting and extremely competent script by Ian Sutherland which gave the depth needed to the character.

Sure, the majority of the film is gritty but there are still a few laughs along the way. How can it be completely serious when the films starts with these doctors discussing the risks versus monetary gain versus ethics of a new procedure for penis enlargement. Some of the friendly, or not so friendly, ribbing between the crew is quite funny. Not as funny as their matching yellow bucket hats mind you, but still pretty funny. The one highlight of the supporting cast is definitely the gravel voiced seaplane pilot played by Murray Westgate. While telling them about the very remote locale he is taking them to he discovers he has a plane full of doctors. He almost kills them all when letting go of the reins and ripping open his shirt to show them a rather impressive scar. What a card!

Now that's a scar!

There is a rather sordid home video release past for this film. Because of some editing – read butchering – of the film most have seen it in its slighter shorter version titled THE CREEPER. Hell, even IMDb lists it under this title rather than RITUALS. Odd. Since VHS it has only been released as this version in some of those Mill Creek mega sets of horror classics, but Code Red has been working on a restored special edition DVD for quite some time. In December of 2009 it was featured as the cover story in Rue Morgue Magazine (since they’re both Canadian productions). In the article it says the DVD is due out later that month – but that didn’t happen. Now a year-and-a-half later there are rumors that it has finally been released. Amazon doesn’t have any and Code Red’s own site doesn’t even say where it can be purchased. There are some specialty DVD retailers online who do have a few copies, allegedly, in sock. Good hunting.

RITUALS turned out to be a total surprise to me. The premise seemed interesting but I wasn’t expecting much, except for from Holbrook. This movie transports you into the woods with these very real and very frightened characters. You feel for them and it’s all thanks to the writing and amazingly strong lead actors. Give this a shot if you can find that new DVD or an old uncut VHS version. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Until next week – I’ll be vacationing…indoors!

Body Count: 6
Best/Most Powerful Death: Choked out of his misery
Best Trap Set by Matthew: Bear trap in the river
Best Beard: Matthew’s kin – Jesse

Coming soon to Horror Movie Night (Chronicles are posted one week after screening):
-7/20/11: VIDEO VIOLENCE 2 (1987) ***Slight schedule change, DEADLINE has been moved to 2012
-7/27/11: TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT (1980) Christmas in July!
-8/3/11: DEATH SPA (1988)
-8/10/11: HIDE AND GO SHRIEK (1988)

Awesome poster art for the film

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