The Hunted: Rituals (1977)

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Though Halloween has passed, it is still possible to watch horror movies. It’s quite pleasant, too, not being harangued about the best one  “you’ve never seen” every other mouse click. I celebrated this freedom from list fascism by attending a twelve hour horror movie marathon at Anthology Film Archives on November 1st. It was an eclectic selection that ranged through low-budget Mexican vampires, classy British omnibus films, and schlocky AIP giant rat attacks. The title that stuck in my cranium and asked to be dispatched in this space is the 1977 Canadian survival horror obscurity Rituals (aka The Creeper). A post-Deliverance male bonding death march starring Hal Holbrook, it pits a group of alcoholic doctors against a psychically damaged ex-soldier in the wilds of Northern Ontario. The film relentlessly strips away the men’s defenses until they are physically and emotionally bare, live nerve endings that become easy targets for the almost entirely unseen soldier. In their profession the doctors have made mistakes, often tragic ones, and their medical ethics loom large when they are forced to deal with their own mortality. The only decent home video version is an out-of-print DVD from Code Red, but it’s well worth tracking down.

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England-born director Peter Carter made his career in Canadian television, but first broke through with the independent feature The Rowdyman (1972), about an aging womanizer in Newfoundland (viewable in an iffy YouTube version here). It’s a scruffy comedy that makes extensive use of location shooting, so you get a rich sense of the town, from the loser’s matchbox sized apartment, to the local paper mill, to “Lucky’s Chop Suey House” on the main drag. Writer and star Gordon Pinsent won the best actor at the Canadian Film Awards for his efforts, though I could understand maybe one out of every ten words through his thick Newfie accent. Rituals is Carter’s second feature, and he retains the specific sense of place. Locations are key to the film’s movement, from the lush, fecund greenery of their initial hike to the parched desert land around a man made dam. Whether Carter’s third feature, the Peter Fonda/Jerry Reed AIP trucker adventure High Ballin’ continues this specificity, I leave to my more intrepid readers to discover. Carter died in 1983, soon after making the Christopher Plummer action comedy Highpoint.

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The screenplay for Rituals was written by first timer Ian Sutherland, and produced by character actor Lawrence Dane (who co-stars as the whiny Mitzi). It was Dane’s second and final producing credit. This was, for the most part, a film made by newcomers under difficult circumstances. For much of the film the actors are trudging through fly-choked forests or swirling rapids. I found one headline about the production, from the Montreal Star, that reads “Flies major hazard in tough ‘Rituals” shooting.” It must have been miserable for the actors and the crew. But it is a film of great control, though also one of understandable sadism. The effects build slowly, and the payoffs are oblique.

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A group of five friends take their yearly vacation in the remote Northern Ontario wilderness. They are all current or ex-doctors, and the trade off who gets to pick the destination. This year it’s DJ (Gary Reineke), who wears a fetching Montreal Expos hat and is rather cavalier with how he discusses the health of his patients. He explains away a botched surgery that he’s just trying to make a living. On the other spectrum is Harry (Hal Holbrook), a by-the-book doctor who extends life spans as long as he can, done with the discipline of his army training (he fought in Korea). Others seem to float in between these two poles, including Mitzi (Dane), who seems to go along to get along, and is more accepting of death as a possibility. At their first night of base camp, there is a sense of hetero male bonding check boxes having to be ticked off. There’s an inflatable sex doll, but she’s mere decoration, as these upper class adventurers pose as partiers but strain to keep their mask of civility as long as possible.

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Martin (Robin Gammell), a barely functional alcoholic, quotes the last lines of Yeats’ The Second Coming as they discuss the Native American legend about how the valley was made by the Moon impressing itself on the land: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Martin explains the connection:  “-The moon is magic, right? And Yeats was into magic. Yeats was into the moon.” Yeats was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organization dedicated to studying the occult. As Martin is explaining, the camera takes a roaming POV, lurking in the background as if from the perspective of an onlooker. Martin desires the occult and supernatural as a way to escape his own being – and immediately the camera obliges, providing a seemingly mystical presence to watch them. As the film progresses, this presence becomes more and more violent. It begins by stealing their boots, and ends in unrepentant slaughter. Each man’s beliefs are tested and failed by their attacker. The most damning test is reserved for Harry, who is forced to carry an incapacitated Martin throughout the barren landscape. Martin is close to death, and draining Harry’s strength. But his moral code forces him to soldier on with this burden. Harry sets himself up to be a martyr, but in the end he is denied even that. He is granted survival as his final punishment.

10 Responses The Hunted: Rituals (1977)
Posted By Ben Martin : November 4, 2014 2:58 pm

Wow – Okay you’ve hooked me. I’m going to track this down.
Also, wish I lived closer to the Anthology film Archives. Lucky you.

Posted By Jenni : November 4, 2014 3:25 pm

Sounds like a good one and a film I’ve never heard of. Going to seek it out! And btw, my Dad has gone to Canada, Ontario specifically on fishing trips, where one has to fly in to get in and out of the area and he has said those flies are horrible!

Posted By swac44 : November 4, 2014 3:28 pm

Definitely worth seeking out, unfortunately the Code Red DVD (the only one worth watching) has been out of print for a while. It may be difficult to find a copy for under $40 (which I suppose isn’t much for those of us who remember collecting films in the laserdisc era). It also came out under the title The Creeper, but the copies of that version don’t look promising.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : November 4, 2014 4:04 pm

swac44, I didn’t realize the DVD was out of print. I’ve updated the post. The full feature is on YouTube from what looks like an old cropped VHS, if some of you don’t mind that fuzzy format.

Posted By swac44 : November 4, 2014 6:21 pm

I remember reading an article about the poor state of film preservation in Canada, and this was one of the titles that came up in the discussion, I think the company that owned it went out of business, and the rights to it are in limbo, so there’s no immediate pressure to ensure it’s preserved and restored. A similar fate befell The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, a terrific film based on the Mordecai Richler novel, set in historic Montreal and featuring great performances by Richard Dreyfuss in the starring role, and a young Randy Quaid in a major supporting role. There is a recent DVD of the film, but I believe all the tweaking for that release was done in the digital realm, not preserving original elements (or what remains of them).

Posted By Jeanette minor : November 5, 2014 11:07 pm

I have this, (under the Creeper title), on one of those 50 movie Mill Creek boxed sets. The quality is awful, But yes, it is a very interesting film. The scene early on where the men wake up in the morning to find that all their boots have been stolen in the night and then it all goes down hill from there makes intriguing viewing. Yes it’s a Deliverance clone. But it’s a good one.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : November 10, 2014 5:24 pm

This is an all-time favorite. I liked this movie when I was younger but now that I’m of the age of the characters (and older) I enjoy it even more. It boggles the mind that this was written off as a dog but the American cut of the film does the movie no favors.

Posted By Boobie Needham : February 18, 2015 4:42 am

I remember the first time I saw this on the tube…
Freaked me right out! Great film. Wishing Hal Holbrook a Happy 90th Birthday today

Posted By Boobie Needham : February 18, 2015 4:46 am

I’d also like to point out that it’s 11:45pm on this Tuesday February 17, 2015

Posted By swac44 : February 18, 2015 6:09 pm

Funny, Boobie, I was also wondering what’s up with the time stamp on these posts. Anyone know the story there?

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