Monday, April 25, 2011

If You Go Down To The Woods Today...

RITUALS is one of the most frightening and intense horror pictures I’ve ever seen. Obviously influenced by DELIVERANCE, this 1977 Canadian production stands on its own as a powerful, intelligent low-budget thriller that spends time and energy to first create interesting characters before killing them off. And for the first time, at least since its original theatrical release, it can be seen in a presentation worthy of its status.

After years of delays, Code Red has finally released RITUALS on a perfectly fine Region 1 DVD certain to make many reviewers' 2011 Top Ten lists. First announced as early as 2008 for a possible 2009 release, Code Red's RITUALS was delayed in part because of the company was attempting to get star Hal Holbrook for an interview. Holbrook doesn't appear on the DVD, though producer/co-star Lawrence Dane sits for both an interview and an audio commentary, and co-star Robin Gammill is also interviewed.

Filmed in the Ontario hinterlands by director Peter Carter (HIGH-BALLIN’) on a $600,000 budget, RITUALS casts Dane, Gammill, Ken James, Gary Reineke, and American star Holbrook (who also acted in JULIA and ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN around this time) as physicians on a fishing trip deep in a Canadian forest—so deep they need a plane to drop them off. The colleagues were once close friends, but different paths in life and various personal demons have caused the friendships to fragment somewhat.

What’s wonderful about Ian Sutherland’s screenplay (originally penned as BLOOD RIVER) is the care he takes to fashion interesting, fully fleshed characters. Indeed, the way in which their shallowly buried resentments come brewing to the surface once the men are put under pressure provides much of the film’s drama.

Their drinking and male bonding quickly turn to terror their second morning in the wilderness after they discover an unseen stalker has swooped into their camp while they slept and swiped their boots. Reineke, the only one who thought to bring extra shoes, volunteers to hike the fifteen miles over rough country to a dam to bring back help.

However, when Reineke still hasn’t returned the next day, the others set off to find him, only to learn they’ve been targeted by someone who toys with them using bees, bear traps, and heads on a pike to induce fear.

Like DELIVERANCE, RITUALS is more than just an exercise in violence; in fact, there’s precious little on-screen gore. Even after the unseen (except in faraway shots) creeper has begun terrorizing his victims, Sutherland and Carter continue to probe and unpeel them. While horror films often create artificial tension among its characters to create bogus conflict, the maturity and years-long friendships of RITUALS’ middle-aged protagonists—who are professionals, after all, and in Holbrook’s case at least, war veterans—result in truly powerful dramatics.

Dane also produced RITUALS and worked with Carter on Sutherland’s script. One interesting aspect is Gammill’s character’s homosexuality, which is presented in a matter-of-fact manner. Gay men were almost always treated as camp or unsympathetically in films of the 1970s, particularly action/adventures.

RITUALS is a horror film, but more than simple drive-in fodder. It’s a grueling and character-oriented suspenser that’s crying out to be better known. The director’s staging of the brutal action sequences on some very rugged-looking land stands up against any outdoor adventure of the era.

RITUALS was released domestically by Harry Novak’s Boxoffice International and has also been seen as THE CREEPER. For awhile, a company run by actor James Drury (THE VIRGINIAN) held the U.S. rights. Terry Levene's New York-based Aquarius also got hold of RITUALS at some point. Up to now, it had hardly ever been seen in good condition, at least not on home video. The American VHS release was actually a cut television print, and the best version I’ve ever seen until the Code Red disc—Germany’s PAL X-Rated DVD—is still very murky. This is partially because the lab processing the original negative messed up, leaving much of the climax in the dark (literally), but also because many Canadian features of the period just weren’t properly maintained.

Thankfully, Code Red has done a pretty decent job, presenting RITUALS from a 35mm print with a few scratches and speckles, but definitely looking better than any previous home video version. Dane is joined on the commentary by Lee Christian, who is normally quite good at these things, but seems ill-prepared for RITUALS, and Walter Olsen, one of the brothers who run Code Red. It's their company and they have the right to do what they want, but both Olsens are hopelessly inept at commentary tracks, and I wish they'd leave the heavy lifting to more qualified experts. Olsen's lack of preparation extends to his repeating an Internet joke about a Holbrook soft-rock album as fact.

Criticisms aside, RITUALS is a Canadian horror classic and well deserves the royal treatment extended it by Code Red. The DVD isn't perfect, but it's wonderful to finally see.

P.S. Big thanks to Robert Richardson, who provided much of RITUALS' background information based on his conversations with actor/producer Lawrence Dane.

1 comment:

sampanaflex said...

I just watched RITUALS this evening. The print was pretty lousy... but it was just the print. On the flip side, the picture (as a whole) was better than expected. Good detail, warm colors, and you could follow the action in darker scenes. No more murk! The sound was better than I had expected... not hissy or poppy. Very clear. I go to midnight movies all the time so I am used to a scratchy beat up print, and I feel it adds to the charm. I'm thankful for Code Red for making this happen and we as fans should be for CR putting these offbeat titles out there...past and forthcoming. Thank you for posting about this title and I hope it keeps the ball rolling and CR keeps these gems on the shelves!