Rituals (1977)

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*. I’ve talked before, for example in my notes on Deliverance, about the genre of nature horror and the way it pits the forces of civilization (which usually come up wholly inadequate) against those of the wilderness.
*. It’s an idea that has been located at the core of Canada’s cultural identity, most famously formulated by the literary critic Northrop Frye in his description of a “garrison mentality.” What this referred to was a habit of building walls (real and metaphorical) between civilization (or Canadian culture) and the destructive forces of nature and natives, or the United States (seen as the Other). If you’re going to go roughing it in the bush the first thing you’re going to want to do is build a cabin so you’ll have a place to bunker down.
*. This is a long way of introducing Rituals, a movie that obviously derives from Deliverance but which was filmed in Canada and was a Canadian production. “Nothing could be more Canadian,” Caelum Vatnsdal says, going on to call it “a stone classic of Canadian horror.” Since Vatnsdal wrote a book (some might say the book) on the subject of Canadian horror movies, this judgment carries some weight.
*. It’s a movie I have a lot of respect for, though I don’t like it much. Survivalist movies, if they are effective, always seem to me to be experiences that have to be endured. I don’t like camping, and I don’t like watching people camping, especially when they have to put up with things like bugs and mud and having their boots stolen by a crazy man who lives in the woods.
*. But the main problem, as I see it, with Rituals is the awkward grafting of the maniac-killer plot on to the Deliverance stock.
*. There is either too much of the killer here or not enough. I think I would have been happy if he’d been left a silhouette and point of view, but given the requirements of the psycho-killer genre a whole back story providing a complicated explanation for his motivation had to be invented. Or sort of invented. And then clumsily introduced by the old device of a scrapbook the hero just happens to find (in a cabin that he just happens to find), and then having a dying man (the killer’s brother) deliver some exposition before expiring.
*. It’s never entirely clear what the killer has against doctors. He was in the war and was injured and they botched his surgery in some way. It seems very complicated. And how ridiculous is it then that a team of doctors finds itself in his neck of the deep woods?
*. The city-slicker campers are almost ridiculously out of their element. They don’t bring spare boots despite being told to. They don’t know enough to take off their expensive watches when crossing a river. For a moment I was surprised to find out that they hadn’t even brought a compass, but then I figured that none of them would have been able to use one anyway.
*. It was released under two, equally terrible, titles. The Creeper makes it sound like the campers are being pursued by a deep-woods Peeping Tom, while Rituals is a reference to . . . what?
*. Having mentioned some of its shortcomings (but not all, because I haven’t said anything about the terrible editing, sound, and lighting), I still think this is a movie worth searching out. Siskel and Ebert panned it on release, but it had a champion in Stephen King, and on this occasion I’ll take the novelist’s word.
*. Though it’s an ugly looking film, this actually helps to emphasize a sense of gritty rawness. I say rawness rather than realism (a word that is often applied to it), since I don’t think there’s much realistic going on here. But the violence feels real in a way that it doesn’t in most slasher films.
*. I wonder if this was the first movie to have a character cauterize their wound with gunpowder. I believe Rambo would later do it, and John Woo makes use of the same battlefield procedure in The Killer. I could certainly see them being influenced by this film.
*. Hal Holbrook and Lawrence Dane are both good in the two lead roles. Dane was actually supposed to play Harry (Holbrook’s part) but the investors figured they needed a bigger star.
*. Dane was stuck playing Mitzi. This must be a nickname, but I’m not sure what it would be short for.

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*. The killer is certainly an odd duck. As I’ve already said, his exact motivation is hard to figure out. Making him even more enigmatic is the fact that he’s inarticulate. Apparently he can speak (he speaks to Mitzi at the end) but we never hear him. Vatnsdal says his appearance is reminiscent of the Man in Death Line, but I think his enigmatic nature is an even closer connection to that shaggy wild man of the subways. The way he arranges his victims in such emblematic ways, for example, is less creepy than weird. And why does he just let Harry shoot him at the end?
*. It might be my hearing or it might be the muddy sound, but I had a hard time making out what the characters were talking about a lot of the time. It’s easy to miss what I think is a bit of dialogue when one of them mentions matter-of-factly that he has a boyfriend. It’s a bit strange to bring this up, and even stranger that nothing is made of it. It’s remarkable for a movie of this time.
*. I mentioned Rambo (I believe it was Rambo III) as being possibly influenced by this film, and this is not just because of the cauterization scene. There’s also the whole military angle. I don’t know what to make of this here. Apparently the killer is a veteran of WW2, while Harry served in Korea. They are both survivors of one kind of battle and perhaps the suggestion being made is that their experience carries over to their struggles on the home front. There may be a moral or philosophical point being made about how such psycho-killer films posit a Darwinian war of all against all that runs beneath our civilization. “Nothing is over!” Rambo bellows at the end of First Blood. Isn’t that what we could hear Matthew, or for that matter Harry, saying here?

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