Saturday, October 5, 2013

#166: Rituals (Peter Carter, 1977)

Thanks to the success of John Boorman's 1972 adaptation of James Dickey's Deliverance, a new horror subgenre enjoyed a brief period of fashionability. There isn't any official name for this subgenre, so I call it the middle-aged-guys-go-into-the-wilderness-and-terrible-shit-happens movie. I'm predisposed to like this kind of thing, but I will admit there are some less than stellar examples. Rituals is one of the more obscure nutzo wilderness movies, and until recently wasn't even available on DVD, but don't hold that against it. If you're only going to watch a handful of these kind of films, and you've already seen Deliverance, you need to throw Rituals near the top of the pile.
Rituals is a low-budget independent Canadian production, but its lack of shiny Hollywood polish is a blessing. Director Peter Carter is no master visual stylist and the screenplay fails to flesh out any of the characters, but the movie is big on suspense, atmosphere, dread, and raw, visceral intensity. This is a dark, tough, tense film that doesn't ever let up, and its location shooting in the remote Ontario wilderness and lack of back story give it an unsettling documentary feel. A bit too visually pedestrian and schematically written to be a great movie, Rituals is still a damn good genre film and deserves a larger audience.
Rituals opens with our characters, five middle-aged doctors, preparing to board a small plane that will drop them off in a remote chunk of the Canadian wild for six days of camping. The five friends vacation in a different location together every year, but this year's trip seems fraught with tension from the beginning. Two of the quintet, who happen to be brothers, are battling substance abuse problems. One of the two, Martin (Robin Gammell), has lost his practice due to his alcoholism and is the on-call physician at a steel mill. There are also major tensions between Harry (Hal Holbrook) and the rest of the men, especially Mitzi (Lawrence Dane). Harry is an ethical guy who thinks his old friends are more concerned with corporatizing and franchising their medical practices and procedures than with helping their patients. Things start off tense and only get worse, though there are a few brief moments of comic relief from the plane's goofball pilot (Murray Westgate).
Once the men arrive at their destination, they realize it's even more remote than they had anticipated, but they roll with it. They argue with and complain to and about each other in between moments of levity and inexperienced camping errors. It's all fun and games and angry bickering until all their boots are stolen and ominous ritualistic symbolic animal mutilation occurs near their campsite. Spooked, the men send one of the brothers off to a remote outpost to attempt to find some better quality footwear. Soon, a series of terrible things happens to the men, and it becomes horrifyingly clear that a skilled yet crazed outdoorsman is stalking them. But why?
Carter does a nice job increasing the tension to nearly unbearable levels, and he skillfully avoids the repetition inherent in the plot and setting. Holbrook and the supporting cast of Canadian character actors do a lot with the thinly written parts, especially Holbrook, and I liked the conceit of making the men doctors. They can treat their injuries, which makes them less helpless victims and more challenging prey than the random horny teenagers in more generic slasher films. I was also impressed at the film's progressive-for-the-time treatment of Martin's homosexuality. It's revealed in a no-big-deal way midway through the film, and he's treated as an equal and a friend by the rest of the men. Other than one jokingly effeminate line of dialogue and an unsympathetic character calling Martin a "faggot" in a moment of anger and weakness, the character's sexuality is never made an issue. This character you've just spent 30 minutes with is gay, the movie says, because gay people exist. You're going to spend another hour with him, and his sexuality is not an issue. I don't want to overstate Rituals as some kind of civil rights landmark, but it was a very surprising thing to see in a 1970s genre film.
Rituals is a solid horror film that taps into the primal fears of the remote wilderness. What happens when you're isolated from modern civilization, when you no longer have control over your environment, when there's something out there that wants to get you and it knows what it's doing? This is not a groundbreaking film, but it's scary and intense and a fine way to spend an hour and a half.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen this one, but Stephen King mentions it favorably in his genre-survey Danse Macabre. That's where I first heard of it.

James Dye