RITUALS - Dutch video cover
4  stars   
"Not since Deliverance ... has the wilderness held such terror "

directed by: Peter Carter
starring: Hal Holbrook, Lawrence Dane, Robin Gammell, Ken James (II), Gary Reineke, Murray Westgate, Jack Creley, Michael Zenon

(back of video blurb):

" ... sorry, my Dutch ain't too good! ... "

choice dialogue:

"Someone's playing a very sick joke with us ..."

the campers start to realise that something is very wrong

slash with panache?

RITUALS is one of those films that I gradually became aware of and after hearing positive murmuring I finally became hell-bent on tracking down- something which, it turned out, was easier said than done.

It is impossible to discuss this film without also mentioning DELIVERANCE (1972), both films have a similar theme: townies going back to nature, only to find that nature doesn't want them. It also deals with stripping away layers of convention and civility like a Russian doll, until raw primeval emotions and instincts are all that's left. But RITUALS, despite this, is a somewhat remarkable film in its own right.

A group of 5 middle-aged male friends: Harry (Hal Holbrook), Mitzi (Lawrence Dane), Martin (Robin Gammell), Abel (Ken James (II)), and DJ (Gary Reineke) - all of whom are doctors - meet to discuss the plans for this year's trip, a vacation they take each year. Amongst the bickering and jokey slurs about each other's professional reputation it's clear that there's a genuine affection amongst the group, and the feeling that they've all been friends for some time is admirably communicated to the audience in a relatively short space of time. As with every year they plan a hiking holiday to get back to nature and generally enjoy each other's company; to escape the hustle-and-bustle of modern day life. This brief glimpse of civilisation is all we see of it because soon they are flying over a sea of impenetrable green forest in a BI-plane, one of them remarking: "We're 225 miles from the nearest cathouse- that river is in the middle of the cauldron and the cauldron is in the middle of nowhere." It is here that they get dropped off- with a warning that they have to wait for a set number of days before they'll be picked up.

Atop the rim of this massive cauldron- the cauldron of the moon (which they mention is an old Indian legend), the group gathers for a photograph, before shouting out across the endless forest and hearing their cries bouncing back to them as disembodied echoes. Whatever lurks in the forest is now aware of their presence- and something lurks there, all right…

They spend the rest of the day hiking, showing their townie ways struggling good-naturedly to come to terms with the dense landscape, before setting up camp and spending the evening around the campfire indulging in booze and dewy-eyed reminiscence.

During the night one of them gets up to have a piss and stumbles across a strange display just beyond the perimeters of their camp. Someone - or something - has impaled a decapitated deer's head, entwined with snakes, on a tree- it's blank and glazed eyes staring directly forward. However, come morning there's worse news- presumably whoever was responsible for the macabre sculpture has also stolen all, bar one, of the group's shoes.

DJ, who is the only one to have shoes left, volunteers to hike up river to a dam that he's seen on a map, and raise the alarm. However, afterwards, the rest of group decides not to stay put and, wrapping their feet in rags, see if they can catch up with him. But, as they struggle through the inhospitable terrain, it soon becomes clear that whatever visited them that night hasn't finished with them yet and, worse, has murder on the mind …

Again, like DELIVERANCE, as the film progresses the surviving men attempt to hold onto the values which they cherish back home, but as the bodycount rises they find it harder and harder to keep a grip on civilisation and grudgingly realise that to survive they will have to sacrifice almost everything- including their friendship with each other.

Neither the characters nor the audience gets a good glimpse of what is pursuing them, which leads to a horrible uncertainty about what is going to happen- what we do get are (sparingly used point-of-view shots and a (extremely striking) silhouette of a figure on the horizon. Harry, at one point says, "We don't know if it's one man or ten"; another chews over the fact that "… a lot of careful hatred has gone into this". There is also an almost disorientating mixture between the mundane and the arcane- with ritualistic, perhaps supernatural, elements mixed with down-to-earth but very real threats like specially placed bear traps. "There's a certain unholy precision to all of this- like a ceremony, a demonic ritual.", one of them says before wondering aloud about the reasons why they should be targeted.

Cleverly, as the film's characters descend into a nightmare world the environment around them changes- the lush woods give way to a barren, hilly wasteland. And, as they don't think it can get any worse- in a scene which manages to conjure up an almost unbearable sense of dread, two of the surviving characters awake to find one of their friend's head has been stuck on a pole and placed mere feet from where they were sleeping.

RITUALS has been mooted in some circles as an inspiration for THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, which is understandable as both films brilliantly convey the feeling of loosing control of the world around you and being inexorably drawn into the unknown. Both films also finish with haunting images. Naturally I wouldn't dream of spoiling the end of the film, but what I will say is that it gives me chills just thinking about the incredibly creepy sight one of the characters encounters at the film's climax.

An excellent film that I recommend whole-heartedly, that is only somewhat marred by an overly dark transfer, which occasionally renders the night scenes near unfathomable. (This is, by-the-way, the Dutch version, which is uncut. It is, however, worth pointing out that, as I said earlier I had a bit of a time finding the film, and that was because although it is fairly easy to find on the US Embassy label as an ex-rental, this is actually the TV version which is missing nigh on 10 minutes of footage. The Canadian Astral version, however, is reportedly complete but I've never seen a copy on-line. So, happy hunting!)

5   bodycount!   female:0 / male:5

       1) Male killed in fall
       2) Male found strangled to death
       3) Male dies from wounds
       4) Male burnt to death
       5) Male killed with shotgun