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Directed by Peter Carter in 1977, Rituals (also known under the alternate title of The Creeper) didn't get a decent home video release for a long time until Code Red stepped in 2011 with a proper DVD release. A few years later in 2019, the film was issued on Blu-ray by Scorpion Releasing as a Roninflix exclusive and now, in 2020, it's been given a standard release. Influenced by the likes of seventies box office hits like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Deliverance, Carter's picture revolves around a group of doctors made up of Harry (Hal Holbrook), Mitzi (Lawrence Dane), Abel (Ken James), Martin (Robin Gammell) and his brother DJ (Gary Reineke) head north to the deep forests of Northern Ontario for a weekend of fishing and relaxation.
Things are fine at first, their pilot drops them off without any issues and a day of hiking rewards them with a good spot to set up camp for the night. The pair share some drinks and joke around before calling it a night, only to wake up the next morning and find that someone has stolen their hiking boots. The only one in the group with an extra pair of shoes is DJ and so he heads off to try and find help at a dam they know is close by, while the other four make the best of the situation. Time passes and the next day DJ still hasn't come back and this time they wake up to find the severed head of a deer mounted on a stick in their campsite… someone is obviously trying to send them a message.
Completely (and understandably) freaked out by this, they decide they're not going to wait around any longer and so they wrap their feet in cloth and decide to hike out to find DJ or anyone else who can help. Of course, this hike comes with its own share of problems, from a nest of angry wasps to the appearance of a strange person who may or may not be following them. Conflict erupts within the group and as tensions rise and tempers start to boil, they find themselves in a fight for survival against a menace that seems to constantly have the upper hand.
First off, there's no denying the influence that John Boorman's Deliverance had on this picture. It's painfully obvious that Carter's film was hoping to cash in on that picture's success and it uses pretty much the exact same set up even if it does take things in a decidedly more twisted direction. The film also benefits from the same type of hopeless and destitute atmosphere that Tobe Hooper so masterfully created with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Carter's picture absolutely wears its influences on its sleeve and no one will likely be claiming this as the most original picture ever made. With that said, it's a good movie, derivative or not. What sets this one apart from a lot of other backwoods horror films isn't just what happens to our campers but how they react to it and how they in turn react to one another. What's interesting about Rituals isn't just the nasty gore set pieces (handled very effectively by Carl Fullerton who would later work on a few Friday The 13th films and the Oscar winning The Silence Of The Lambs) but how our campers, close friends all these years, start to let their deep seated issues with each other come into play when the proverbial shit hits the fan. When these guys start to snap, some mix of selfishness and survivalist instinct kicks in they go back and forth between attempting to work together and being at one another's throats.
None of this would matter very much if the acting weren't up to par, but thankfully it is. While all in the cast excel with the material, it won't surprise anyone to hear that Holbook is the best part of the film in this regard. His character has a bit more depth than the others and so he's got just a bit more to work with and he proves very capable in the physical side of the role as well as the more dramatic side.
There are slow spots here and there and there are the aforementioned derivative plot points but Rituals succeeds where a lot of other films fail. If it's not the most original picture ever made it's certainly one wrought with tension and suspense, some stand out gore set pieces, strong performances and excellent cinematography that makes great use of its remote Canadian locations. In fact, in much the same way that Scorsese lets skuzzy seventies New York City become a character in his film, so too does Carter let the rough terrain of Northern Ontario become a character in his.
It should be noted that this film was released previously on DVD in the United States by Mill Creek Entertainment, which in turn appears to have been sourced from the VHS release that came out through Embassy in the eighties. Both the Embassy and subsequently the Mill Creek release were cut and there's a good bit more gore present (in addition to some dialogue and character development bits) in this uncut version which runs almost ten minutes longer at 99 minutes versus 89 minutes.
Rituals is framed at 1.78.1 and presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition on a 25GB disc, with the feature given 21.7GBs of space, in a transfer taken from what are believed to be the best surviving 35mm elements. It's fairly well known that due to a lab accident the ending of the film is pretty messy looking, that's still the case here, but this transfer does offer significant improvements over the DVD that came before it. Detail is noticeably stronger throughout and the picture offers better depth and more obvious texture as well. The biggest difference, however, is in the color correction that's been done here, making the old DVD release look very brown in comparison. Now, the greens of the forest setting actually look green, and skin tones more natural and less pink looking. It's still less than ideal, but it's much better than what we've had in the past. The image has been cleaned up as best it can be but there's still some obvious print damage noticeable throughout. Thankfully the picture is free of obvious noise reduction and edge enhancement, retaining a film-like appearance throughout, though some compression artifacts do pop up in spots.
The English language 24-bit DTS-HD Mono track is also substantially better than the Dolby Digital Mono track that was on the older DVD release. Dialogue is much cleaner and clearer now and there seems to be less hiss. Levels are balanced well and the score has better depth to it. There are still obvious limitations to the source that are noticeable, but this is much better than what came before it. Optional subtitles are provided in English only.
There are no new extra features here, but all of the extras on the disc are carried over from the aforementioned Code Red DVD, starting with an audio commentary with the film's star and producer Lawrence Dane, who is a fairly affable guy with a sharp memory who shares some good stories here about working on this picture. He discusses the involvement of the various cast members and talks about what it was like working with Carter. He also talks about shooting the picture out in the remote woods and some of the issues that arose during the production.
If you need even more Lawrence Dane, he also shows up in a twenty-one-minute on-camera interview in which he talks about the opportunity that this film afforded him, to turn in an interesting picture on a low budget, explaining how it was all shot in continuity. A second interview lets actor Robin Gammell spill his guts for ten-minutes about his experiences working on the film. Gammell talks about how he was asked to appear in the film by the director and what it was like working in the woods on the film. Gammell describes Holbrook as terrific and describes the difficulty of certain key scenes in the film.
Rounding out the extras on the disc are theatrical trailers for the film under both the Rituals and The Creeper titles, as well as bonus trailers for Terror Train, Death Ship, Blind Date and Human Experiments. Menus and chapter selection are also included.
If it's maybe not a masterpiece Rituals is still a damn good movie with some great performances and memorable set pieces. It's tense, it's exciting, and it's just generally quite well made. Scorpion Releasing's Blu-ray debut for the film offers up substantially improved presentation and carries over all of the extras from the older DVD release. Highly recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.