Color, 1977, 100m.
Directed by Peter Carter
Starring Hal Holbrook, Lawrence Dane, Robin Gammell, Ken James, Gary Reineke
Code Red (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1)

Available from Diabolik DVD


One of those titles a few lucky people stumbled upon whose reputation has grown almost entirely by word of mouth, Rituals is a late '70s canadian entry in the stampede of post-Deliverance survival horror films that also contains such other minor but worthwhile oddities as Shoot and Hunter's Blood. However, along with Walter Hill's Southern Comfort, this is easily one of the best and certainly the creepiest of this subgenre, a pitch-black and often harrowing look at a weekend getaway for five physicians in the wildnerness. While they camp out and sleep at night, an unseen tormenter begins disrupting their trip; first it's minor things like swiping the shoes of all but one of them, and then leaving a severed deer head near their tent. However, things quickly escalate into more macabre shenanigans when one of them disappears, and it becomes clear that this backwoods menace has something more homicidal in mind.

Though low on plot and characterization (including an arbitrary climactic reveal only outdone later by I Know What You Did Last Summer), the Ontario-shot Rituals (also released as The Creeper) more than makes up for it by piling on dread by the bucketload and delivering some truly powerful shock sequences, including a grisly morning surprise halfway through the film and a chilling finale that unfolds with the frightening, fragmented structure of a nightmare. Hal Holbrook was being largely pigeonholed in subdued political roles at this point in his career, so it's a bit surprising to see him in a brutal, very physical role complete with bloody mayhem (on both himself and others) and some obviously grueling shooting conditions in the middle of nature. The rest of the cast is largely Canadian character actors, including the still-busy Lawrence Dane (Scanners, Happy Birthday to Me) as the secondary lead (he also co-produced), Robin Gammell (Lipstick), and a completely unrecognizable Jack Creley, who went on to play Brian O'Blivion in Videodrome.

Unfortunately, Rituals suffered a very rocky distribution history like many of its Canadian tax shelter companions; it was released in America by Aquarius, a drive-in specializing company who made it big(ish) with A Boy and His Dog and later unleashed some gory Italian imports like Make Them Die Slowly. Critical reception was generally hostile, with Siskel & Ebert and Leonard Maltin trashing it most soundly; only Stephen King gave it an early passing, positive nod in his pivotal book, Danse Macabre. The film was then cut very heavily for television, and this edited master was used for the VHS version most people saw from Embassy, a sorry-looking and very dark transfer that rendered most of the running time completely incomprehensible. An uncut, better-looking version from Astral appeared on tape in Canada and became a very sought-after collector's item, but from the '90s and well into the early '00s, it was almost impossible to see in any form, much less uncut. A terrible, very compressed rehash of the TV cut was released as part of a 50-film set from budget label Mill Creek and didn't do the film any favors, while a very battered print was transferred for a non-anamorphic German DVD from X-Rated Kult with big, burned-in German subtitles and a worse-looking VHS-sourced DVD in Italy. None of these came close to an acceptable way to see the film, but at least they helped more people see it at all; thus its reputation in the age of online word of mouth began to skyrocket, and ragged prints began making the rounds at various horror film retrospectives.

Code Red announced Rituals as one of its earliest titles, but it took several years before the DVD finally surfaced in 2011. While it would be nice if someone could miraculously uncover the negative someday, this transfer is taken from what Dane terms the best surviving print available and indeed features far superior colors and detail than any previous video edition. It's also completely uncut, which will make this a revelatory experience for quite a few American viewers. Lots of little nicks and debris are in evidence through much of the film (and some of the reel changes are on the rocky side), but it still represents a massive leap up in quality compared to every prior edition and looks quite nice and film-like upscaled on a hi-def TV. Dane provides a video intro, a 21-minute interview about making the film and his career acting in Canada and abroad after the film, and an audio commentary moderated by Code Red regular Lee Christian that covers a lot of territory including the tax shelter system at the time, the lab snafu that damaged the negative during the climax of the film (which was thus carried over to all the prints), Holbrook's enthusiasm for the role, and the effects illusions used for the harrowing burning scene. Dane swerves away from any Deliverance comparisons and seems to remember a lot about the production; unfortunately the second half of the commentary gets chaotic on occasion, with off-mic participants jumping in with inaudible conversations that derail the topic on several occasions. If you can deal with the digressions though, there's some good info to be found here. Gammell also appears for a much shorter interview (10 minutes) about his role in the film and the sometimes grueling nature of filming in the wilderness; apparently that trudging across the river scene was even tougher to shoot than it looks. The disc also includes the great theatrical trailer (which has appeared on compilations before and contributed to the film's fan following), plus additional promos for other releases like The Last Chase, Caged Men, Nightmare, and the thematically similar Trapped. A chilling, wonderfully rewarding gem from the golden age of Canadian exploitation filmmaking, this is still one the most harrowing survivalist horror films ever made.