November 4, 2014
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.