The opening minutes of Rites of Passage promise gonzo fun. Christian Slater talks to a stuffed monkey. Wes Bentley gets wacked out on herbal tea and kidnaps someone. A woman in a bikini and tribal paint runs for her life in a greenhouse full of marijuana. But Rites of Passage is too crazy too early, and runs out of steam quickly. This odd, genre-hopping film from Director W. Peter Iliff is part backwoods horror and part stoner comedy. Several University of California, Santa Barbara students accompany a classmate to his family's estate, located on a sacred Chumash burial ground, to participate in a coming-of-age ritual, and find their weekend less a vacation than a fight for life. Rites of Passage tries hard - perhaps a bit too hard - to buck genre conventions, but its odd mishmash of black humor and terror is roughly sewn, leaving it sloppy and unsatisfying.
Anthropology student Nathan (Ryan Donowho) is tired of bombing with the ladies and lurking in the shadows, and takes the advice of his friend Hart (Travis Van Winkle) to man up and do something bold. Nathan invites several classmates to his family's land to try out a Chumash ritual that is supposed to usher a boy into manhood. Joining Nathan and Hart are a laidback professor (Stephen Dorff, because fuck it, Tara Reid played a scientist in Alone in the Dark), Nathan's drug-addict brother Benny (Bentley), and nut-job dealer Delgado (Slater). The crew arrives, strips to their bathing suits and starts boozing. Things turn sinister when Benny and Delgado get into the hallucinogenic tea used during the ritual.
Rites of Passage tries to be so many things at once that it doesn't do anything particularly well. Benny is apparently dealing with more than a few personal demons, and Rites of Passage hints at a family conflict between the brothers over the residual estate. I guess Benny and Delgado are shacking up out of necessity, fueling each other's addictions. Benny starts envisioning the love he lost in a wreck and kidnaps a young coed, intending to sacrifice her during another crazy ritual. It's not clear exactly what is going on here, but Delgado is equally crazy, fighting with a monkey sock puppet over whether to kill the visiting students. Nathan and company start getting high on the tea, too, and then people start dying.
Most of the young actors spend the entire movie in various forms of undress, and I felt like I was watching an Abercrombie & Fitch ad with more profanity. The horror elements aren't especially gory or tense, and the film's off-kilter humor quickly gets repetitive. There is one scene when several of the characters start scrapping that is a frontrunner for most colorful use of profanity in a movie this year. I actually had to replay the scene to make sure my ears weren't deceiving me. The cast is game for the material, and I think Iliff tried hard to do something unique. Rites of Passage just didn't quite work out.
The 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is clear and bright, with good detail and texture in both close-ups and wide shots. Colors are bold and well saturated, and the sunbaked California landscape sparkles. Black levels are good, crush is minimal, and I noticed no obtrusive compression artifacts or digital tinkering.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is active, with good separation between dialogue, effects and score. Ambient and action effects make use of the surround speakers, and the subwoofer supports the mayhem with heavy LFE response. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available.
Extras include The Making of Rites of Passage (6:43/HD), a short, behind-the-scenes piece, and the film's trailer (2:00/HD).
Ambitious but sloppy, Rites of Passage offers a strange mix of dark, gonzo humor and horror. Wes Bentley, Christian Slater and Stephen Dorff slum it in this genre-hopping film. Several college students participate in an ancient Indian ritual and succumb to the effects of hallucinogenic tea and homicidal impulses. Genre fans may want to rent this, but everyone else can Skip It.
William lives in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.