RITUALS **** Canada 1977 Dir: Peter Carter. 95 mins
A long-underrated but finely crafted Canadian addition to the urban-paranoia sub-genre of post-DELIVERANCE chillers in which city folk are driven to savagery by the hostilities waiting for them in the great outdoors.
Surgeon Hal Holbrook and his four buddies / work colleagues take a private plane to a serene location (nicknamed “the cauldron of the moon”) for a week-long fishing trip. They get drunk / stoned, argue about work issues and fool around by the campfire before becoming aware of an unknown, seemingly grudge-bearing presence. A nocturnal theft leaves them without adequate footwear. Food supplies dwindle. A freshly slaughtered animal is hung by their campsite. They become hopelessly lost and the rivers turn out to be perilously loaded with animal traps.
A major (and unsung) precursor to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, this only offers a late, fleeting glimpse of its threat while authentically conveying the shifting dynamic in a group of friends placed in a life-threatening situation. Director Peter Carter makes remarkably eerie use of the stunning Ontario locations, finding something alienating and unforgiving about the picturesque landscapes. There’s a vivid sense of despair as seemingly prepared, manly men are reduced to sobbing panic, with Holbrook typically superb as a flawed hero – a Korean war veteran with a determination to survive but thwarted by a succession of everyday human weaknesses.
Most of the violence is off-camera, but RITUALS boasts vivid shock moments: the discovery of a severed head at a key point startles, and the climax is harrowing in a way that few of the DELIVERANCE-wannabes managed. Fairly typical of the period in which it emerged, the movie bows out with a hollow sense of victory and a final shot that’s as bleak as the (ironic) main theme is lovely.
Review by Steven West