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“Fish out of water” films are a real thing, and they are an odd little sub-category of horror and horror-tangential films. Probably the most famous of them is Deliverance, but it would be a mistake to think that Deliverance clones like Southern Comfort aren’t in some way a response to that film. Even The Descent has some connection—put city folk in the wilderness and, essentially, see what happens. The Hills Have Eyes, Cabin Fever, and even movies like The Naked Prey, Straw Dogs, and Wake in Fright have some connection to the subgenre. Stuck right in the middle of these, almost exactly between Deliverance and Southern Comfort is Rituals, which was also released under the much more B-movie title The Creeper.
Rituals is very clearly a film that wants to be Deliverance. In fact, it is essentially a Canadian version of that film with a lot less star power, since our main star is Hal Holbrook, and that’s about all we’ll get for major players of the time. We have a group of doctors who knew each other in med school who get together for a yearly trip, the planning of which rotates between the people in the group. This time, the planning was done by D.J. (Gary Reineke), and the trip is a fishing/camping/hiking vacation in northern Ontario. Along for the trip are Harry (Hal Holbrook), Mitzi (Lawrence Dane), D.J.’s brother Martin (Robin Gammell) and Abel (Ken James).
Of course, things are going to go bad almost immediately. After being flown into their wilderness area, the men make camp. When they wake up the next day, they discover that their boots are missing. D.J., the only person who seems to have brought an additional pair of shoes, decides to hike to a nearby dam in the hopes of finding some help. That night, the remaining members of the group discover a severed deer head with a snake wrapped around the spinal cord in a weird mockery of the caduceus. The next morning, the four head out in an attempt to catch up with D.J., but trigger a booby trap involving a giant beehive. Abel doesn’t survive this, and it appears that before he falls to his death that he was thrown off a cliff.
And this is where we’re going to spend a lot of our time. Harry, Mitzi, and Martin make their way slowly through the forest, dealing with the fact that none of them are wearing shoes, and also dealing with the threat of an unknown assailant in the forest. Is it actually D.J. working out some sort of twisted revenge? Is it someone who has an axe to grind against one of the doctors? Is it random? Most of the rest of the movie is an attempt to answer those questions.
The biggest strength of Rituals is also its biggest fault from a narrative standpoint. The targeting of the doctors appears to be mostly random, but there is a very definite attempt to shoehorn in a “reason” for all of these things to be happening. It honestly never really pays off in any good way, and so what could be something that is terrifying both in its intensity and because of its randomness is instead forced to have a deeper meaning that it doesn’t really need. There’s no need for these doctors to be targeted more than the fact that they are there and are convenient victims. When we finally discover exactly what is happening, it feels cobbled together.
If you can ignore that attempt to make everything that happens have some sort of deeper meaning, there’s a lot here that is really interesting. Rituals does a very good job of making sure that the audience never really feels settled or able to understand what is going to happen next. This is really effective, and when the film tries to make this all fit together into something like a purpose behind what happens, it becomes a lot less than what it was. It’s scary when all of this seems to be completely random and terrible. When there’s an actual agenda, it’s still pretty terrible, but psychologically there’s a lot less there.
I really want to like Rituals more than it deserves, because the mistake that it makes is a completely natural one. When it comes to movies, we want everything to fit into a narrative. We want the bad guys and the monsters to be behaving in the way they do for a reason, even if that reason only makes sense to them. The issue here is that the reason we’re given is one that we have to make a lot of logical jumps to get to, and it takes the idea of the randomness of the horror here out of the equation. If this was closer to that “because you were home” moment in The Strangers, this is a much better film.
Why to watch Rituals: It’s a good example of the subgenre.
Why not to watch: It tries too hard to make everything fit into a neat narrative.
This looks lame and this is beneath Hal Holbrook. A legend.ReplyDelete
There are a couple of genuinely good shock moments, but it's pretty derivative, and as you say, it's beneath Hal Holbrook.Delete
I know I watched this years ago and I remember reviewing it favorably, but I'll be damned if I can remember a single thing about this movie now.ReplyDelete
It does kind of have that feel, doesn't it? It blends into something like Deliverance really easily, and since that's a better movie...Delete