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It’s Too Late for Prayers: Revisiting Rituals (1977)

It’ll be a little soggy but just keep slogging.

We’ll soon be on dry ground.”

We were — waist deep in the Big Muddy

And the big fool said to push on.

– Pete Seeger (Waist Deep in the Big Muddy)

Horror cinema shines when thrusting the viewer face-to-face with reflective realism. By drawing from vulnerable characters’ reactions to an onscreen threat, there’s value in considering how one would react if placed similarly in their position. On that token, a caricatured villain is amusing, but appreciable chills may be cultivated by a monster portrayed with nuance and complex motivations. These notions power Peter Carter’s Rituals (aka The Creeper (1977)), a terrifically tense, gritty backwoods horror film from Canada analogous to Jon Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), but transcends imitation by seeping into the territory of frightening morality play. Muddying the line between “hero” and “victim”, Rituals sets its flawed protagonists against a vengeful adversary with whom they share no direct historical link. They are, however, marked to suffer as a result of past transgressions intertwining with their current predicament.

A quintet of doctors — a brilliant collection of veteran talent consisting of Hal Holbrook, Lawrence Dane, Robin Gammell, Ken James, Gary Reineke — embark on an excursion deep into the Canadian wilderness, a fifteen mile stretch of rugged area dubbed the “Cauldron of the Moon” by its indigenous population. The trip is part of an annual bonding tradition in which this group gathers to decompress from the stress of their demanding careers. To demonstrate the remoteness, they must be flown in by plane and picked up after six days of rigorous hiking and rafting along the river with only their wits and meager supplies to carry them through to a pre-arranged pick-up point. As their pilot exclaims, “that river is in the middle of the cauldron, and the cauldron is in the middle of nowhere.” Their journey is hampered by a myriad of personal baggage the men carry with them – the weight of debt, ambition, and addiction heavier than the rucksacks loaded across their backs.

“Is it ethical,” asks Hal Holbrook’s neurosurgeon Harry in the film’s opening. His question identifies to the viewer the close-knit but strained relationship shared between them as they wax philosophically, talking shop and nonchalantly perusing surgical procedural photos over breakfast in the local greasy spoon. Harry argues with D.J. (Reineke), a plastic surgeon who has designs on a practice for male enhancement surgery to which Harry is morally opposed. Harry’s concern is the herding of patients through a system designed to optimize time and money but with little regard for the patient’s health, a concept explored by sociologist George Ritzer in his book The McDonaldization of Society – a process of delivering goods and services in a factory-like, dehumanizing manner (Ritzer 1993/2012). D.J.’s response is that he’s just trying to make a living providing an in-demand service at the rapid pace required to sustain his lifestyle. This opening conversation is a harbinger of future ethical clashes that will factor into their experience dealing with traumatic and fatal events. With a pecking order established among them, they set out on their journey with deeply rooted resentments.

The excursion begins on a strained note dampening the mood from the jump. Immersed in the pristine nature surrounding them, however, the trekkers loosen up with jubilant shouts into the canyon during a group photo; their echoes drive home the point that they are eerily and absolutely isolated. Carter slowly introduces a dangerous adversary in the form of a stalking forest dweller, alerted by the ruckus and curious about their presence. In the initial goings, he stealthily spies from the brush eavesdropping on their intimations, witness to their callous talk of botched procedures. Here the director and cinematographer René Verzier adopt a first person point-of-view anytime he’s lurking nearby. Carter juxtaposes these images with wider shots showing the man appearing ominously in silhouette, conspicuous yet unnoticed amidst the group’s parade through the wilds.

Rituals harbors spiritual underpinnings, and much of the doctors’ talk outside of surgery are superstitious in nature. There is much discussion of the moon, especially as it relates to the mythical creation of the region, the moon thought to have “bumped” into the earth by the indigenous people of the region. Having previously discussed the traditional medicinal possibilities offered to the natives by nature, Abel (Ken James) asks, “wouldn’t it be funny if this really was a magic place?” In a playful bout of drunkenness, the doctors dance ritualistically around the fire chanting, “put us back together again,” mocking the people who’ve suffered while entrusted in their care, unaware they are invoking their own reckoning in the flesh. The next morning after their reckless tempt-of-fate, they find that their boots have been stolen. D.J., the only one who’s brought along an extra pair of shoes, volunteers to find help and leaves the remainder of the group to fend for themselves while he hikes to a faraway dam.

The following night, with D.J. long gone, they shockingly awaken to find a deer’s head mounted to a stake intertwined with a snake, which Harry recognizes as representing a crude Staff of Aesculapius, the symbol for the American Medical Association. This realization informs the viewer of two things: first, it shows that the stalker is aware of their history in the medical profession, doubtlessly from overhearing their conversations from afar; it demonstrates that his worldview is not limited to the insular world of the woods surrounding them. His sanctuary compromised by these invaders offers an opportunity to exorcise his demons through their destruction.

Ethical dilemmas – medical or otherwise – factor largely throughout the story. The group’s judgement – already compounded by insecurities, addictions, and personal quarrels – is now guided by the overwhelming instinct for self-preservation and hasty decision-making. Too impatient and scared to wait for D.J.’s return, the remaining men wrap their feet in rags and set out in search of help. Their attempts to navigate the terrain are thwarted by the cunning stalker’s deployment of rustic but effectively clever methods of inflicting pain, such as the diabolical use of a bee hive and bear traps to neutralize his targets. These “childish” acts, as Harry describes in an earlier encounter, are alarming in their precision, challenging our conception of the prototypical backwoods maniac. The stalker leaves them clues: an x-ray taken from a military hospital; medals; discharge papers; and other mementos are left at the scenes, clearly a message meant for doctors with callous attitudes regarding their trade. In this regard, the stalker’s behavior can be examined as emerging from someone who’s been “triggered”. For this reason, Rituals can be viewed as one of the first of its kind to seriously address PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), at the time still in rudimentary stages of study (Glasser 2011). Sutherland resisted carving a villain from the mould of generic “hillbilly horror” archetypes, instead giving him agency with actions motivated by a desire deeper than lunatic bloodlust.

By seriously addressing issues of morality and the lingering affects of trauma, Rituals is an unusual example of a horror film constructed with a humanist intent with components indicating a strong anti-war subtext from the creator. The scenario – throwing a group of people into an unfamiliar and hostile environment – evokes an environment akin to a war-zone drop behind-enemy-lines, and the stalker’s use of guerrilla tactics against this invading squad serves to drive home that point. Screenwriter Ian Sutherland conceived Rituals in part by spending time at a reunion of wounded Canadian WWII veterans. The recollections of these former prisoners-of-war, though not verbatim, are woven into the film’s fabric. (Vatnsdal 2004).

Rituals benefits tremendously from grounded characterization and consists of, as star and producer Dane notes in disc commentary, “actors actors.” The choice of using “mature” thespians imbues the film with an unexpected level of emotional depth, a quality of genuine lifelong turmoil influencing their actions. The ever-reliable Holbrook serves as the anchor with a balanced portrayal of fear and resilience. His initial steely calm holds the rapidly unraveling squadron together as best he can muster amidst these incomprehensible and horrific events. Dane’s portrayal of Mitzi provides a potent foil to Holbrook, urging Harry to make pragmatic, though ultimately selfish decisions at the expense of fallen comrades. The two bark at each other relentlessly, Mitzi working to wear down the morally resolute Harry.

With the exception of Holbrook’s character who discusses his time served in Korea, we’re never made aware whether or not the other doctors are veterans themselves or if their status spared them tours of duty. With the exception of D.J., whose penchant for preparation demonstrates time spent in the wilds, the rest of the group appear tenderfoot when it comes to a survival situation. Even Holbrook’s recount of the war recalls a drunken prank, not practical experience in a combat situation. D.J.’s fleeting presence is an effective plot maneuver providing a red herring necessary the film’s paralyzing sense of mystery. Martin’s (Gammel) character happens to be gay, but his orientation is never reduced to a punchline, nor is it consequential to the other men. In this regard, Rituals acknowledges in a small but thoughtful way what Boorman evaded in his screen adaptation of Deliverance – masculinity and homosexuality addressed by James Dickey in the literary source material.  

Carter helmed action-oriented fare High Ballin’ (1978) and Highpoint (1982), as well a family-friendly wilderness chronicles like Canadian TV-movie The Courage of Kavik, the Wolf Dog (1980), Klondike Fever (1980), and a television series based on The Swiss Family Robinson (1976). His early work on Rituals revealed a talent for squeezing every ounce of atmosphere from his rugged and isolated naturalistic settings. He takes a decidedly brutish approach to Rituals in direct defiance to the tax-sheltered guidelines set by the National Film Board of Canada, a program to foster growth in Canadian cinema. Rituals functions wholly in opposition to the conventional standards set in representing Canada to the rest of the world, and is a rather savage portrayal of Canadian wilderness. Typically picturesque depictions of the Canadian wilds, established by the documentary work for which the region is recognized, are rendered an unfathomably chilling environment in which to set the ensemble against a horrifying unknown. The convergence of genre storytelling with a documentary aesthetic strengthens the emotional and aesthetic impact overall, and the film resonates with lasting magnitude as a result of this blend.

Rituals was a casualty of indifferent distributors, thus remains one of Canuxploitation cinema’s most elusive titles. Collectors or curious filmgoers should be wary of poorly transferred, heavily-edited versions found on VHS or DVD formats, especially the television version re-titledThe Creeper missing eleven minutes of footage. Code Red released a limited-edition full uncut version in 2011 that was sourced from the producer’s archival print. Sadly, the original print negative was damaged in the lab by careless Pathé Studios technicians resulting in a murky look that plays decently in a theater, but offers frustrating home viewing – the film is very dark, particularly in the climax. It’s unfortunate and more-than-a-little ironic that an artistic work commenting on the horrors of feckless butchery would suffer a similar fate. Thankfully, Scorpion Releasing has issued what looks to be the definitive edition, restoring and remastering both picture and sound.

Carter never veers from his intent at an authentic portrayal of survival, and Rituals builds toward an unnerving showdown in a small cabin where Harry has sought refuge. Mortally wounded, he resorts to crude methods of defense and treatment of his critical wounds. The climax draws comparisons to Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), a nighttime assault in which Harry comes face-to-face with the his deformed assailant and finds his morality tested to extreme measure. Ultimately, Rituals functions as a meditation on the sanctity of life, critical of arrogant caretakers entrusted with delicate human bodies; despite its unyielding commitment to savagery, Carter never loses sight of the underlying humanity. As the W.B. Yeats’s poem Second Coming quoted in the film portends, “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” The beast in this instance takes form in a human man badly mangled inside and out, failed by his country and cruelly mocked in his own sanctuary. With Rituals, Carter charted deep into the Canadian wild, and his work emerged as one of the most darkly poetic and philosophically sophisticated survivalist horror films in the pantheon.

Sources:

Anderson, Shaun. “Rituals.” The Celluloid Highway, http://sonofcelluloid.blogspot.com/2011/11/rituals-1977.html. Accessed March 2017.

Bowen, John. “A Very Careful Hatred”. Rue Morgue, Dec. 2009,  pp. 16 – 18.

Corupe, Paul. ”Rituals.” Canuxploitation! Your Complete Guide to Canadian B-Film, http://www.canuxploitation.com/review/rituals.html. Accessed March 2017.

Freitag, Andre, and Gina; Loiselle, editors. The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul. University of Toronto Press, 2015.

Glasser, Ronald J. Broken Bodies, Shattered Minds: A Medical Odyssey from Vietnam to Afghanistan. History Publishing Company, 2011.

Ritzer, George. The McDonaldization of Society. Pine Forge Press. 1993. SAGE Publications, Inc. 2012.

Vatnsdal, Caelum. They Came from Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema.

Arbeiter Ring, 2004.

About Chris Hallock

Chris Hallock is a screenwriter and film programmer in the Boston area. He has contributed to VideoScope Magazine, The Boston Globe, Paracinema, Shadowland, ChiZine, and Planet Fury. He serves as a programmer for the Boston Underground Film Festival and the Massachusetts Independent Film Festival and is a former Co-Director of Programming for Etheria. He is currently writing a book on the horror genre for Midnight Marquee Press. His other passions are cats, drumming, and fiercely independent art.

One comment

  1. A nice write-up. One small correction that won’t matter to many, aside from Canadians perhaps: the National Film Board of Canada had nothing to do with financing this great movie, or administering the tax shelter system. It was actually a government program called the Capital Cost Allowance; and partial financing for movies like this frequently came from an organization called the Canadian Film Development Corporation, which is now called Telefilm Canada. Sorry for the pedantic nitpickery, but I wouldn’t have corrected you if I hadn’t enjoyed the article so much.

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