Retro VHS Review: ‘Rituals’ (1977)
Embassy Home Video
Directed by: Peter Carter
Cast: Hal Holbrook, Lawrence Dane, Robin Gammell, Ken James, Gary Reineke
Review by Marc Patterson
If you haven’t picked up on it by now then you’re probably not a regular reader around these parts because I’m not too subtle about the fact that I’m a rather huge fan of backwoods survivalist horror. Ever since I got the special VHS issue of Rue Morgue (Dec ’09) in the mail, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the Code Red release of Rituals to DVD. Sadly, something suspect has gone on over at Code Red and here it is, June of 2010 and I’m still waiting. Check that. I gave up on waiting. I recently dug my old VHS player out of the closet, rigged it up to my HD TV screen and have been slowly rediscovering a few lost horror classics. When I caught that Dr. Goreman of Dr. Goreman’s Nightmare Emporium was selling off some of his VHS tapes, and that Rituals was amongst those up for grabs, I immediately took to it and snagged myself a copy. Damn the man.
When Rituals arrived in the mailbox it was like fuckin’ Christmas. The version I purchased was the slightly edited (but more commonly available) version from Embassy Home Entertainment. The uncut film from Astral Bellevue Entertainment was released only in Canada, though I’m assuming one could find it kicking around since in the world of VHS such silly things as region coding never existed. But I would also imagine that it has a pretty high price tag to accompany it. There was also some crazy VHS release under the ridiculously absurd name “The Creeper” as well. However, I’d like to almost forget that this re-named version ever existed. To the point of Embassy vs. Astral I’ll address the key differences in the film a little later on, but first, for those of you who are unfamiliar, we should probably dive into this still lost gem of horror cinema.
Rituals is essentially your classic backwoods horror/slasher film set up: Toss a group of people in the backwoods and pick them off one by one until you reach the final showdown and to the victor… well the victor gets to live. That should be enough reward. Admittedly, that’s a rather simplistic way of looking at Rituals. After all, so many would-be filmmakers take this formula, run with it, and subsequently fuck it up beyond all recognition. Total FUBAR. Rituals mixes in the perfect balance of character, killer, suspense and gore to prove how truly good and effective this simple formula can be when done right.
This story surrounds five doctors on their annual reunion getaway who decide to head out into a remote Canadian forest for a six day hike. Harry (Hal Holbrook) is the quintessential leader. DJ (Gary Reineke) is the hot-headed trip organizer. Mitzi (Lawrence Dane) will play the thorn in the side of Harry. Marty (Robin Gammell) is Mitzi’s friend. A total drunk, but a good friend. And then there is Abel (Ken James), who probably shouldn’t even be in the outdoors with all of his allergies and incompetence. The only way in or out of the remote hiking ground is by water plane and there is no chance of rescue should things go wrong. No worries though right? Who better to have in the backwoods than medical doctors?
It doesn’t take long for things to unravel. Only the first day in, and when the men wake up they discover their boots have gone missing. While who stole the boots is of obvious concern, DJ seems more ticked off with the fact that the other men haven’t followed his instructions. Everyone was to bring an extra pair of boots and no one did. In a line not to be forgotten, that will forever date the film, he sets off to find help yelling “Look, two months ago I sent everyone Xeroxed sheets of what you were to bring!” There are these continual moments of subtle unintended humor interlaced into the film.
With DJ headed out the men are at odds as to what to do. Do they hang tight and wait for DJ to bring help, or do they try to make their way to a hydro dam they’ve located on the map in hopes they find someone manning the dam? It wouldn’t be much of a story if they stayed put so they head off to find the dam. So long DJ! The guys tie plastic bags to their feet and begin to make their way through the treacherous forest, all the while being stalked by an unseen assailant who has laid out a path of intricate traps and dead-falls that will plague the men until they can’t endure it anymore. Slowly the group unravels and Harry and Mitzi begin to lock horns and butt heads. If navigating a dangerous forest and fending off a psycho killer wasn’t enough, the men can’t help but turn on each other. Eventually everything culminates in a bizarre showdown with the killer that was a real WTF moment. On this, the film certainly didn’t play its strongest card, but nonetheless manages to whimper to a final hoorah worthy of the ending we’re given.
There are several things worth noting that make this film above and beyond a fun one to watch. Surprisingly, for the amount of crazy going on in the film, it’s rather bloodless. It actually took me a second watching to realize in full how bloodless the film really is. There are some really great kill-sets, but all are executed in a smart way that avoids buckets of blood flowing. While some may count that a strike against the film, I always applaud any violence that is so brilliantly inferred that you think you see something you really don’t. Second are the characters. All of the characters are set up smartly, and have substance and dimension to them. They are rather believable and act accordingly. I was also shocked to see the inclusion of a homosexual character amongst the cast. Something you really wouldn’t expect from a male bonding film made in the 70’s. That was a bold move that played out surprisingly well, didn’t succumb to immature ignorance, and only enhanced the viewing experience. Finally, the chosen backdrop for the film. Director Peter Carter didn’t just choose to set the film in the Canadian forest, he actually shot it there adding to the authenticity of the look and feel of the film. If the men look uncomfortable, it’s because they probably really were.
As I previously mentioned, there is a difference between the version I watched and the original uncut version the Canadians got. What we’re missing from the Embassy version is roughly 10-11 minutes of run time and some rather good gore. According to the IMDB key differences include: (only minor spoilers)
* When Harry (Hal Holbrook) wakes up and slides outside his tent to be confronted with the severed head of his buddy mounted on a stick, the Embassy version cuts and crops around this to avoid a good look at a very creepy special effect.
* The “we have to kill him” scene is also much longer and more graphic in the Astral version.
* The ending is much more protracted and gruesome in the Astral version. The burning scene goes on for a very long time and involves a lot of screaming, and the killer’s demise features a couple of extra gunshots.
* The climax in the Astral version also includes several extra shots of Harry in the cabin attempting to stop the massive bleeding from a severed artery.
* The Canadian video also has more dialog and extra footage in many different places (too numerous to mention here). The Canadian print is not letterbox, however it displays considerably more image on the left and right sides of the frame, as well as the top. The U.S. Embassy video appears to be magnified.
* Also of note is the fact that the French Canadian release under the title, ILS ÉTAIENT CINQ… is actually the same 89 minute print as the cut Embassy version despite the fact that it was released by Astral.
Okay – so why all the references to the various versions of the film, to include the yet to be seen Code Red version? Well, here’s the deal… As mentioned this film still hasn’t been released to DVD and if we can make some continued noise perhaps we can make a difference. Maybe not, but maybe. I’ve attempted to contact the folks at Code Red a multitude of times looking for updates and information and have come up with jack and squat on all accounts. If making noise will start to garner more interest, perhaps this film will eventually find its way to DVD where it belongs.
Why this film needs a DVD release? The reasons are fairly simple and straightforward:
1. It’s nigh impossible to find the Astral VHS version. Those added minutes need to be seen.
2. The VHS version is murky and looks like shit. During the nighttime scenes, (of which there are plenty because of course all the best stuff happens in the dark), you can barely distinguish what is happening on screen. According to Rue Morgue, the reason the film looks like shit is because Pathe Studio techs damaged the original negative in the lab, resulting in the murky and grainy look. Reportedly it played well enough in theaters but never properly transferred to other mediums such as VHS and television. The folks from Code Red SHOULD be able to fix this for one main reason. Rue Morgue tells readers that Code Red’s version is sourced from director Peter Carter’s personal copy.
3. The audio was horribly mixed. This is directly a result of a piss poor job mixing and not the effect of listening to this in mono on a VCR. As I’m typing this my three year old is in the background watching The Lion King on the VCR in mono and it sounds great, all things considered.
4. This is a great film and a fun story and deserves some form of wide release to be enjoyed by a new crop of horror fanatics. Let’s face it… VHS is like vinyl. There are a limited number of us out there who even care about this video medium anymore. I could sit here and be all elitist and snobbish about it, but in a day and age of Blu-ray and streaming media, getting a film onto something as basic as DVD should be a no-brainer.