Suave parapsychologist Dr. David Sorel (Louis Jourdan) returns to battle the supernatural in this sequel to Fear No Evil (1969). When Sorel's most recent patient, troubled heiress Aline Wiley (Carla Borelli) disappears one dark and stormy night, he visits her California mansion. There Sorel confronts Aline's tipsy aunt: faded movie star Jolene Wiley (Anne Baxter) and equally troubled kid sister Loey (Belinda Montgomery). Both of whom are haunted by strange nightmares involving the ritual murder of a young hippie as part of a possibly Satanic ritual. The next morning Aline's dead body is found on the beach by musician Larry Richmond (George Stanford Brown). Since Larry is black local cops quickly label him a suspect but Dr. Sorel is unconvinced. He is far more intrigued by a friend of the Wiley's, glamorous photographer Leila Barton (Diana Hyland) who seems to exert an unholy influence on the whole family.
Paul Wendkos' original occult thriller with Dr. Sorel sparked a wave of spooky television movies about paranormal investigators. Most notably Carl Kolchak the reporter turned monster hunter featured in The Night Stalker (1971), The Night Strangler (1972) and subsequent TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker. However plans to spin Sorel himself into a show called Bedeviled sadly came to nothing. Possibly because Ritual of Evil, although quite ambitious, is a far messier, unsatisfying affair. Replacing Wendkos behind the camera is British director Robert Day. His was an eclectic yet laudable career. Debuting with classic Ealing Studios comedy thriller The Green Man (1956) Day progressed to a solid run of film and television assignments, jumping from horror and sci-fi films like Corridors of Blood (1958) and First Man Into Space (1959) to comedy classics Two-Way Stretch (1960) and The Rebel (1961). Along with Hammer Films' bigger-budgeted-than-usual adventure romp She (1965) he contributed three entries in the Tarzan series: Tarzan's Three Challenges (1963), Tarzan and the Valley of Gold (1966) and Tarzan and the Great River (1967). From the late Sixties onward Day became a staple of American television. Aside from two final movies - outlandish thriller Big Game (1973) and oddity The Man with Bogart's Face (1980) - he cranked out episodic serials along with the occasional superior made-for-TV film such as The Quick and the Dead (1987).
With Ritual of Evil Day takes a relatively grounded, psychological approach to the supernatural, mixing soap opera drama filmed in that familiar Seventies burnished chiaroscuro visual palette with Jean Cocteau-like dream sequences with Loey menaced by masked revelers in Eighteenth century garb or hooded Satanists. It is faintly silly stuff but at least lets Belinda Montgomery ditch that unflattering bowl cut. Co-writers Robert Presnell Jr. and Richard Alan Simmons craft a trippier, more esoteric mystery for Sorel to unravel. One which he arguably never does as the plot proves a tad too slippery. Louis Jourdan is compelling as ever as the compassionate, sensitive hero who this time seems somewhat out of his depth, bewitched and befuddled by an irksomely enigmatic villain whose precise motives go unexplained. Wilfrid Hyde-White returns as Sorel's avuncular mentor as the film tries to have it both ways, claiming the occult is real but demons are mere psychological manifestations of our innate, more often than not sexual desires. The implied message that all evil is rooted in misplaced sexual desire is a sub-Freudian reading of morality as reductive as the villain's belief that humanity is inherently evil. Even so the most interesting aspect of the story is the recasting of the standard Gothic horror metaphysical conflict between savant and monster as one between star-crossed lovers mutually tainted with desire.
Laden with then-trendy Me decade philosophy, New Age lingo and hipster sociopolitical theory the script taps into the fallout from the Charles Manson murders in 1969. Specifically fraudulent stories about Manson victim Sharon Tate hosting black magic orgies and the paranoia that lingered in its aftermath among the 'beautiful people' on the West Coast. The story touches on a few themes pertinent to the time period but in ham-fisted fashion with laboured speeches. Day stages the spooky moments with a similar bludgeoning lack of subtlety. The protagonists are also far less interesting this time around: shrill, self-absorbed soap opera types straight out of an Aaron Spelling production about whiny rich people. Inexplicably their boring personal problems receive a lot more screen time than Sorel's supernatural sleuthing. Indeed the plot reduces Sorel to a bystander while his adversary ties up all loose ends, for no clear reason, ending the film on a much more ambiguous and uninspiring note. Presumably intended to set up a series that never came.