On the face of it, Rituals is complete rubbish but if you are willing to work at it a little then you might find it rewarding. The main problem with the film is the technical aspects, the production is poor and the editing and sound are pretty shocking. There are two main versions around, the easily obtainable but edited version and the extremely rare complete version that has nearly ten minutes of extra footage. Even so, no matter what version you get, the editing is jumpy while the transfer is grainy and dark; you’ll find yourself pressed up against the screen trying to fathom what the hell is going on during the night scenes, but to me, that was half the fun.
Admittedly this film would never have existed without the obvious influence of Deliverance but Rituals is a different film altogether; the men have a much tougher time than Reynolds and the boys, the male group dynamic completely breaks down and the killer is kept unseen until the final moments of the film. Rituals is also noteworthy for being one of the first backwoods slasher flicks and yet also the most unheard of and underrated film in the genre.
The film is about a group of five doctors, veterans from the Korean War, who decide to take a back to nature vacation in the Cauldron of the Moon, an unspoilt and remote location deep in the Northern Ontario wilderness. Initially I thought this film was going to be a pedestrian rites of passage; traumatised war vets coming together to reminisce about the horror of war and to confront their PTSD demons. Harry (Hal Holbrook) and Mitzi (Lawrence Dane) have had problems with alcoholism and the difficult ethical decisions they have had to make during their careers, Martin (Robin Gammell) has struggled with his sexuality and is recovering from a nervous breakdown while his brother DJ (Gary Reineke) and the good natured Abel (Ken James) make up the rest of the group. The men spend most of their time indulging in petty squabbles and the camaraderie indicative of a close-knit group of friends. The free flowing and largely adlibbed dialogue creates an air of realism and adds a little depth to a couple of the characters which only pays off in the second half of the film.
As the men camp out in the open, it soon becomes apparent that something in the forest is aware of their presence and is watching them. From here, the descent into hell begins, slowly and unremarkably at first, as the men discover that their hiking boots have been stolen, but it is significant how a little act such as this can have devastating consequences. The group splits up and the remaining men suffer a series of seemingly random setbacks; a swarm of bees, a fall down a ravine and a treacherous river crossing. But it soon becomes clear that these are no accidents and the men must confront a real demon.
The three surviving members of the group; Harry, Mitzi and Martin decide to trek across the hostile terrain in search of help. Their journey takes them into an area of the wilderness that has experienced a forest fire some years before and this barren and surreal terrain is put to good use in conveying the men’s sense of desolation. And while this film is not scary in the slightest, striking shots such as the killer’s lone silhouette watching from the horizon, elicit an ominous sense of dread. As their desperation increases, cracks begin to appear in the men’s friendships and some very tough choices have to be made, such as what to do with the injured and dying members of the group.
The tone completely changes in the second half of the film, and this is what makes this film so disturbing. Gone is the ‘Grizzly Adams’ feel, replaced by classic slasher-flick tension. The very real characters, built up as harmless fools are dispatched suddenly and ruthlessly with no pause for thought (most disturbingly it is unclear how the killer manages to subdue each man). Particularly unsettling is the death of Mitzi, flawed and selfish though he is, its unbearable to watch him strung up, pleading for help whilst getting burned alive, as Harry, trapped in the killer’s cabin, struggles to contain both his fear and the blood flow from his femoral artery, severed by the allusive killer, who moves about silently somewhere below Mitzi.
The group’s struggle through the wilderness is about survival of the fittest and it is Harry that emerges as the strongest. From the very start, while the others clung to naïve ideas and theories, only Harry seemed to grasp the gravity of the situation by piecing together a series of clues left by the killer to discover his identity.
It slowly transpires that their stalker is Matthew Crowley (Michael Zenon), a crazed veteran of the Pacific campaign in WWII, an expert hunter who lives in a cabin with his blind and harmless hermit brother (Jack Creley). By a most unfortunate coincidence, Matthew was injured during the war and subjected to an even worse ordeal on the operating table, experiencing a personal hell of traction and botched operations that has left him horrifically scarred, with a psychotic grudge against all doctors.
Revealed in person, only during the very final scenes of the film, Matthew has been carefully leading the group to their fates all along. He represents an amalgamation of the group’s past misdemeanours and tortured sub-conscious’ finally catching up with them; the horror of war, dubious medical ethics and a bitter sense of inadequacy all rolled into one. The true motivation behind most of Matthew’s behaviour is left ambiguous, but it is possible that he wanted to die from his injuries and resents doctors for trying to save him, maybe this is why he forces Harry to euthanase his friends, teaching him a torturous lesson in medical ethics. But as the film progresses I think Matthew develops a genuine respect for Harry, indicated by their final sad gestures to each other at the end of the film.