Today, deformed hillbillies terrorizing big-city folk deep in the woods is old hat. Since ‘Dueling Banjos’ played for the first time in Deliverance, horror movies have exploited urban fear of the rural. Call it hillbilly horror, redneck horror, or rural, it’s a subgenre that includes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and Wrong Turn franchises. As well known as these movies are to horror fans, lesser known Canadian horror movie Rituals is among the best examples of the subgenre. Undoubtedly, this canuxploitation horror takes it cue from Deliverance. But it’s still a criminally-underseen movie that leaves a distinct impression.
Five doctors and best friends travel deep into the Northern Ontario woods for a camping trip. Friendships are rekindled and old tensions flare up. But when the friends discover their boots missing the next morning their trip takes a horrifying turn. Someone else is in the woods with them. Hunting them. Miles from civilization and help, the men have no choice but to brave the woods and whatever waits for them.
Rituals Never Exceeds Its Budget, Finding Horror In Its Setting and Premise
As mentioned above, Rituals clearly takes some cues from Deliverance. Like John Boorman’s classic, Rituals is a methodically paced movie that lacks the more outrageous elements found in Wrong Turn. Director Peter Carter and writer Ian Sutherland includes equal parts character drama and suspense. Though Rituals more openly embraces horror elements, it’s a slow-burn approach that patiently immerses audiences in the isolation encountered by the characters. There’s a reason so many horror movies strand their characters deep in the woods. In spite of its lower budget, Carter still captures the feeling of being stranded with an unknown danger stalking you.
Though Rituals more openly embraces horror elements, it’s a slow-burn approach …
If it’s not quite as violent as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes – two other early examples of hillbilly horror – Rituals still boasts some disturbing imagery. All of its violence occurs offscreen. Whether this was intended or a function of budget, the effect is still the same for audiences. That is, Rituals is a moody, atmospheric horror movie that works because what we don’t see is often scarier than what can be put up on the screen. Some truly awful things happen, which is all but confirmed by what Carter does show us. As such, Rituals kicks your imagination into gear creating a very real fear for its characters.
Rituals Keeps a Focus on Characters and Human Drama
Much of what makes Rituals work is the attention to characters and their pre-existing relationships. Though Carter wastes little time getting the five doctors into the woods, he still establishes friendships and past tensions. What this accomplishes is a sufficient amount of conflict and drama to carry the movie between its more horror elements. Additionally, it encourages some doubt about what actions some characters may take, thereby increasing the suspense. No, Rituals doesn’t fool anyone about who is least likely to survive. And it’s hard to believe that the friends would still consider one of their own companions might be stalking them. But these are just minor quibbles.
Though Carter wastes little time getting the five doctors into the woods, he still establishes friendships and tensions.
If there’s a bigger issues with Rituals’ story, Sutherland’s efforts to draw a connection between the doctors and their stalker feels forced. On one hand, it’s a plot point that connects to the underlying tensions between the friends. Yet it’s still a little hard to believe that doctors – some with unethical pasts – would stumble on a man butchered by army doctors in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, Rituals features a strong cast of character actors, including the underrated Hal Holbrook (The Fog). In addition to elevating things above most of the formulaic movies that would follow, the performances make some stretches in logic more palpable.
Simply put, Rituals is one of the better horror movies you haven’t seen. To date, a few distributors have given the canuxploitation movie a DVD release. And if you can’t find it on Blu-ray, Shudder recently added it to its streaming platform. What’s even better with Shudder’s version is that the movie still has its grainy picture quality. This just adds to the movie’s atmosphere.