Not since Deliverance…has the wilderness held such terror!

RITUALS (1977)

Five middle aged doctors in matching yellow hats plan a backwoods getaway for a little much needed r&r. This vacation will also test the limits of the crabby & flabby doctor’s endurance. They are dropped off by seaplane in the middle of nowhere and left to their own devices for the following seven days. The week will be highlighted with an eighty mile hike to the isolated spot where the plane will be waiting.

On the first evening in the woods the doctors (Harry, Mitzi, DJ, Abel, and Martin) stay up all night getting drunk and having arguments about their professional ethics. Harry (Hal Holbrook) and Mitzi (Lawrence Dane, who also appeared in “Happy Birthday To Me”) bicker over how long Harry lets his patients suffer on the operating table before finally pulling the plug on them. Then they begin drunkenly bragging and chanting about being doctors and do their best Frankenstein impressions to mock dying patients. Unfortunately for everyone involved, someone is watching and listening in the woods and doesn’t find the doctor’s antics amusing.

The next morning the doctors wake up and discover their boots are missing. The immediately know something is very wrong and blame roaming theives or “boot freaks.” DJ was the only one who brought an extra pair of boots, and he goes wondering off to find a hydroelectric dam they had spotted on the map earlier. The remaining doctors stay put and spend the night. They awaken to find a macabre work of art in front of their tents. The same creep who stole their boots returned in the night and left behind a dead deer covered with snakes. The men are horrified, even more so when they see that the macabre work of art bears resemblance to the international cross and snake symbol for doctors.

Boots or no boots, the shaken doctors then decide to head towards the dam looking for DJ. Before they can make much progress somone throws an angry beehive at them and sends them running for lives into the water. Fatty doctor Abel makes the fatal mistake of diving in headfirst and smashes his head on a rock. The gentle boob then drowns before the others can save him. Martin finds DJ’s rope stung up across the river and tries to make the trek across, but steps on a waiting beartrap for his efforts. Once again, the creeper is one step ahead of them.

Harry and Mitzi then have to carry Martin around on a homemade stetcher as they try to make their way to safety. The creeper starts leaving clues to his identity, including a brutal set of Army x-rays dating back to 1945. The doctors now understand that whoever is after them obviously has a burning hatred for doctors and a thirst for revenge. They struggle to keep their heads together but the stress of carrying around their fallen comrade begins wearing them down. Mitzi is left in charge of keeping watch the following night but falls asleep. The next morning they discover the severed head of their buddy Abel on a stick. (Fuck “Wolf Creek!” This was the ORIGINAL “head on a stick” flick!) Harry at that point goes completely insane and chucks the head on a stick off a cliff like a lollipop javelin!

Mitzi is reduced to a blubbering imbecile who can’t stop crying and screaming. Harry on the other hand begins a transformation into a hardened warrior. He also carries most of load hauling around Martin. When they finally make it to the dam they discover it had abandoned years before. Their friend DJ is waiting for them, but he’s tied to a chair and almost dead from bloodloss. This time around Harry is quick to pull the plug on a suffering friend and puts DJ out of his misery. Mitzi is completely disgusted by this and runs off screaming like a woman. Harry then makes another tough decision and decides to leave Martin behind to die instead trying to carry him by himself.

Harry takes shelter in the first cabin he can find. Unfortunately, that cabin belongs to the creeper and his older brother. Harry puts the blast on the old man and then has a wild run in with the creeper that leaves him with a gushing femoral artery. Harry is forced to cauterize the wound by pouring gunpowder into it and lighting it on fire. (“Rambo III” ripped that off big time!) The final excruciating scenes feature a fiery showdown between the Harry and the creeper highlighted with Mitzi being roasted alive! Can Harry finally pull the plug on the creeper? If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise!

RITUALS (a.k.a. “The Creeper”) was shot in 1976 but didn’t see an American release until 1978. The film got mixed reviews (the acting was always praised) but was often dismissed as a Canadian “Deliverance” knock off.  The film has gone on to earn a cult following over the years, and one of the reasons this one is considered such a clas-sick is because it combines some incredibly beautiful wilderness locations and genuinely gruesome and unsettling violence. The film ramps up the tension until the final scenes, which are punishingly brutal. The highlight of the film is undoubtedly the legendary head on a stick shot, but the cauterization and burning scenes are also jaw droppers. For a 70′s horror flick this is some truly gruesome, realistic violence. Much credit must be given to the fantastic special make-up by Carl Fullerton (“Friday The 13th” Parts 2 & 3). The Creeper, when we finally get to take a good look at him towards the climax of the film, is one nasty looking bastard.

The other reasons this film is a superior backwoods bloodbath are the acting and the story. As you would expect from a film with Hal Holbrook in the lead, the acting in this movie is excellent. Hilariously, there’s a shot of Hal in this flick that was actually used for the cover of his 1979 soft rock album “On The Road To Soft Gold.” You can’t make stuff like that up folks! The rest of the cast are also top notch. There is a lot of genuine tension between Hal & Lawrence Dane in this one. The way they bicker towards the end of the film feels very real. The story stands out for being exceptionally brutal, but also orignal. The killer’s hatred of doctors and macabre motivation for rural revenge is unique, and it also comes across as real. I also like the fact that a lot of the story isn’t spelled out for you right away, and that you get to experience the film on deeper levels when you watch it again knowing the killer’s motivations.

RITUALS is a truly great horror flick, and after many years of making due with the murky looking, edited tv version of the film (under the title “The Creeper”) in one of those cheap-o “horror collections” from Mill Creek, it was a real treat to finally see an uncut version for the first time! Code Red DVD released a very nice looking, uncut dvd of RITUALS that includes a commentary track with star/producer Lawrence Dane, interviews with Lawrence Dane and star Robin Gammell, and the theatrical trailer. This is a fantastic flick that deserves a larger audience!



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