While the prospect of a Canadian thriller made in the Deliverance mode might not seem too tantalizing, there’s a lot to recommend about Rituals, which is occasionally marketed by the alternate title The Creeper. First and foremost, the movie stars the great Hal Holbrook, an actor of such sublime gifts that he’s able to make even the most outlandish material believable. Moreover, the picture is shot quite well, with director Peter Carter and cinematographer René Verzier emulating many of the visual tropes that cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond brought to Deliverance. Like the earlier film, Rituals features a carefully controlled color palette (lots of muted browns and greens), a long-lens aesthetic juxtaposing crisp foregrounds with soft backgrounds, and panoramic shots that convey the overwhelming size of the wilderness surrounding the characters. Adding to the Deliverance vibe is a horrific storyline about “civilized” men falling victim to backwoods crazies, albeit in the varied landscapes of Ontario instead of the thick Southern forests featured in Deliverance.
In fact, had the filmmakers—including writer Ian Sutherland and producer/costar Lawrence Dane—generated a narrative equal to the picture’s technical proficiency, Rituals might be fondly remembered as a harrowing thrill ride. Alas, the script is repetitive, silly, and tedious, pitting underdeveloped leading characters against far-fetched opponents and culminating with a laughably overwrought finale. At the beginning of the story, five middle-aged doctors catch a seaplane to remote woodlands for a six-day fishing trip. Interpersonal tensions bubble under the surface until the initial weird occurrence—during the group’s first night, someone steals all of their boots. One of the men volunteers to hike to civilization and call for help, leaving the others behind. Then, in the usual way of these things, a tormentor starts tormenting. Eventually, things get gruesome, with one dude’s leg caught in a bear trap and another fellow’s decapitated human head impaled on a pike. There’s no Deliverance-style rape, but Rituals is more than sufficiently nasty.
Meanwhile, skillful actors elevate the threadbare material. Dane, Robin Gammell, and Ken James offer highly competent work, making gallows humor and nervous tension feel real, while Holbrook’s signature style of world-weariness sets a grim mood for the whole enterprise. Holbrook also gets to embrace primitivism, Straw Dogs-style, during the ultraviolent climax. Holding the whole piece together—as much as possible, given the givens—is a genuinely creepy score by Hagood Hardy.