Rituals [1977] ^ Director: Peter Carter ^ Writer: Ian Sutherland ^ Starring: Hal Holbrook, Gary Reineke, Lawrence Dane, Robin Gammell, Ken James

In the 70’s and 80’s, the Canadian government introduced new tax laws in an effort to boost domestic film production, which at that point was virtually non existent. The results were, sadly, not exactly what the politicos had intended, but instead a steady stream of cheap and often tawdry exploitation pics came rushing forth from “Hollywood North.”

Since these works were largely ignored by Canadian film historians, it seemed as though the industry in general was so embarrassed by the whole situation that they would rather just pretend it, and the films it generated, never happened. But Canadian and exploitation filmmaking in general was deeply influenced by these films, as is evidenced by recent remakes of some of the better known examples (“Black Christmas,” “My Bloody Valentine”), and it’s time to give Canadian exploitation films their proper due. “Canadian Classicks” is a look at some of the gems and turds from the so called “tax shelter period,” as well as a place to celebrate (or shame) contemporary contributors to the Canadian exploitation legacy.

For this first installment of this new column, I revisit a film considered by many – including Callum Vatnsdal, author of “They Came From Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema” and de facto authority on this period – as a certifiable classic: 1977’s “Rituals.”

Shot just north of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario on the Batchawana Bay of Lake Superior, the film tells the story of five doctor friends on their annual male-bonding retreat. Unfortunately, their trip quickly becomes a nightmare as the docs are pushed to their limits by an unseen tormentor and are forced to fight for their survival.

The film opens with the five friends, including brothers DJ (Gary Reineke) and Martin (Robin Gamell), being flown out to a remote fishing spot known as “The Cauldron of the Moon.” Things start out well enough, despite everyone except Reineke, who organized the trip not realizing the extent to which they will be roughing it, and the first camp fire scene is lively and ribald. However, things start to get spooky when the campers awake to find that their boots have been stolen. Since DJ was the only one with the foresight to bring an extra pair of shoes, he opts to find a nearby hydro dam to call for assistance.

The remaining campers try their best to enjoy themselves while they wait for DJ, fishing and trying not to think about where their boots went. However, when they find a severed deer head with a snake wound around it in a crude imitation of their Aesculapius symbol, they opt to wrap their feet in rags and set out to find DJ. Although still oddly calm despite the spookiness, things take a grim turn when a hornet’s nest (filmed with real hornets) is dropped in front of them, forcing them to run down a steep embankment, where their colleague Abel (Ken James) trips and dies. This development adequately upsets the remaining doctors who quickly eulogize him as a “gentle boob” before starting with the conspiracy theories.

Leading the charge is panicky Mitzi (Lawrence Dane), who swears he saw a figure at the top of the embankment, but he is silenced by older and gruffer Harry (Hal Holbrook) who also realizes the dire straights they find themselves in but knows that their only way out is to keep going. Things go from bad from worse when alcoholic Martin steps on a bear trap and breaks his foot, leading to a truly horrific scene of Harry having to reset his foot with nothing but a few swigs of Jack Daniels as anesthetic. The scream that Gamell lets out as Holbrook twists his bones back into place verges on unnatural, providing one of the more unsettling moments of the film.

From here the film follows Harry and Mitzi as they lug an alternately sauced and unconscious Martin over hill and dale in a desperate, but oddly resigned quest to get to DJ before the killer does. While Harry, a veteran of the Pacific conflict, is cynical but determined, Mitzi is argumentative and despondent, berating Harry for not leaving Martin to fend for himself. Their worst fears are of course realized upon reaching the dam, which is abandoned, and they discover DJ bound to a chair in a crude backwoods version of traction.

Often compared to “Deliverance,” which was released 5 years earlier, “Rituals” is more like a cheaper, decidedly Canadian cousin than an outright rip-off. As with the best films of this period, Rituals understands how to use its meager $660,000 budget to illicit that right kind of unease, utilizing hand-held camera and POV shots to give things a fly-on-the-wall aesthetic. It also makes great use of the natural setting, pitting the doctors at once against the wilderness, themselves, and the mad killer who is stalking them.

Director Peter Carter was a Brit who came to Canada in the 50’s and quickly found work as a director with the CBC, working on popular shows like “R.C.M.P.” and “Wojeck.” His first film was the 1972 Gordon Pinset vehicle, “The Rowdyman,” an often bleak look at a small town rebel coming to terms with the death of his friend, which is openly considered a classic in the Canadian film cannon on par with films like Donald Shebib’s “Goin’ Down the Road.” “Rituals” was his first horror film, and he continued to work in the genre until his death of a heart attack at 48.

Written by Ian Sutherland, who also penned the child custody comedy “Improper Channels” and Carter’s 1985 action comedy “Highpoint,” the film also manages to make the very Canadian stage-y dialogue work to its advantage. Topics as mundane as penis enlarging clinics and squabbles about packing ring authentic because they are delivered in such a flat, matter-of-fact way. It is also swiftly paced for a wilderness horror movie with scenes of the doctors trekking through the bush clearly serving to set up the next dire moment.

Co-star and producer Dane, who also starred in Canadian horror classics like “The Clown Murders” (featuring a pre-SCTV John Candy), “Scanners,” and “Of Unknown Origin” as well as many recent shot-in-Canada horror flicks like “Bride of Chucky,” was set to star, but investors pushed for a more recognizable name and so American actor Holbrook was brought in to increase the commercial viability. Upon seeing the film, it is clear that the right call was made, as Holbrook brings just the right amount of put-upon cynicism to his role as Harry, and Dane instead gets to revel in histrionics as loud-talking paranoid Mitzi. The cast is rounded out by stage actors Gammell, who also appeared in “The Pyx,” Reineke, and James who, although being little more than psycho fodder, still manage to turn in authentic and sympathetic performances.

Where the film does start to show its weaknesses is the ease with which Harry and the others are able to determine the identity of the madman, a WWII vet with a grudge against doctors. But then again, he does leave them multiple, graphic clues, including medals and x-ray films, and the film is suffused with an acute tone of fatalism which the ending with Harry, bloodied and broken, hiking up the highway and then sitting down exhausted in the middle of it, definitely echoes. Another point against the film, which was selected by Siskel and Ebert as a “dog of the week,” is the fact that all of the characters seem to be shouting. ALL THE TIME. But again, this could just be a result of having to rely on inadequate sound equipment for shooting in the Canadian wild.

While obviously aiming for an international market, the film still manages to feel 100% Canadian, from the yellowing tinge of the film stock to the “Hinterland Who’s Who” soundtrack. But it is this hominess that ends up being the film’s real strength, lulling the audience into a false sense of complacency before abruptly hitting us with a decidedly downbeat ending.

Sadly unavailable on DVD, “Rituals” does seem to have made its way into the grey market and should be easy enough to find with a quick scan of the internet. Unfortunately, the copy I viewed was a second generation bootleg from a VHS release, meaning that the climactic confrontation with the doctor killer was a green-black mess of indistinguishable forms shouting at each other. Yet, while certain aspects of the film were familiar, they were handled with a freshness that still makes “Rituals” well worth a look for fans of independent horror.

Next week: Metalpocalyse comes to Canada with a look at Jon Mikl Thor’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare!”

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