Rituals/The Creeper (1977)
Five doctors that are long-time friends go on vacation deep in the Canadian wilderness. After all but one pair of the party's shoes disappear over night, the remaining shoed camper decides to hike out and go look for help. Soon after he leaves, his remaining companions realize that something is very wrong when a decapitated deer head is left just outside their camp. Even though they still don't have their shoes, they decide to follow their friend's trail out of the woods, but their path is blocked by someone who doesn't want to see them leave the forest alive.
REVIEW: Rituals, or rather The Creeper as it's called on the various Mill Creek multi-DVD sets (and also the more actuate title, IMO) is a classic stereotypical lost-in-the-wilderness backwoods horror movie in the vein of Deliverance and all the many movies have since borrowed from that, such as the Wrong Turn series among many, many others. What's special about this one however, is that it came before all those other ones, minus Deliverance, so while a lot of what this movie does has since gone on to become typical backwoods horror movie tropes, it was actually fresh and new at the time this movie initially came out in 1977. And, for reasons I'll get to below, I actually felt was stronger than all those, including Deliverance.
To begin with, the killer (or killers, it hints at both during the movie and I won't say which it actually is, but for the sake of the review I'll just refer to it as a singular) is wisely kept off-screen for most of the movie. We stick with the main core group of characters during the entire movie and the director only ever lets us see what the characters themselves see and discover only what the characters discover for themselves, never taking us away from them to give us information they don't have or bringing out some random third-act new character to unrealistically deliver exposition and explanations and then leave again. For the sake of the movie, we as viewers are essentially treated as fellow people in this group of friends and we never leave them. Because of this, I feel it adds a whole new layer of tension as it really makes it easier to put ourselves in the mindset of the main characters. We don't ever actually get a solid look at the killer, nor what his reasoning behind hunting these people down is, until toward the very end, leaving it entirely up to our imaginations during the bulk of the movie as to the who and the why.
Alongside the killer himself, the characters also have to deal with surviving the regular dangers of being lost out in the wild in the middle of nowhere, such as getting past raging water rapids, down steep dangerous cliffs, run away from angry disturbed killer bee hives, and careful not to disturb other hungry animals that may be in the vicinity, in addition to battling starvation and dehydration after all their food supplies get ruined. Even if you were to take out the murderous assailant that is hunting and terrorizing them you would still be left with a pretty gripping wilderness survival movie.
Of course the movie wouldn't really be worth a damn if you couldn't stand spending the length of the movie with it's characters, and luckily the movie did great there as well. There's really good chemistry between the cast, even when the characters themselves aren’t always getting along, and they really did come across like very long-time best friends on a weekend camping trip that may harbor the odd negative feeling toward one another here and there, some pent up frustrations if you will, but at the end of the day are still best buds regardless. They were also written in such a way so that the movie really made you unsure as to who, if anyone, would be the sole survivor, choosing not to make any one specific person stand out above the rest, and giving you reasons to care for each character equally. Because of this, it really was genuinely shocking, and even sad at times, whenever anyone got killed off. One of the more unsettling and heartbreaking scenes deals with one of the main characters being discovered hung from a tree, burning to death, while he pleads for help but none of the others are willing to risk getting killed themselves to help him, despite supposedly being best friends.
And yes, there was plenty of death. I won't say how many people actually survive the movie, but I will say that horror fans will not be disappointed here. From being burned alive, to decapitations, to any number of inventive traps set along the way, there's certainly a good number of kill scenes. What is disappointing however, is that while the movie is uncut in any of the rare releases under it's original title of Rituals, it is very much heavily edited for gore under the much-more common title The Creeper, which is the version I saw, so most of the death scenes ended up being very badly chopped up and edited.
Unfortunately, the video quality on the specific release of the move that I saw (Mill Creek's Drive-In Classics 50-pack) was incredibly bad, to the point that any scene that took place at night or in the dark (and trust me, there are a lot of them) were near-impossible to pick out what exactly was happening in them. This was most troubling during the ending of the movie as it made the entire climax pretty much unwatchable and I still don't quite know what went on during that scene. Sadly, other than the very rare and near-impossible to find release of this movie under the Rituals title, this heavily-edited and incredibly-poor video quality release under The Creeper title is probably the only one you'll be able to easily get your hands on.
Rituals, aka The Creeper had the perfect mix of character and heart, suspense and horror, nature survivalism, and beautiful Canadian scenery, all wrapped up in one movie. It actually surprises me that this movie is mostly an unknown one, because I feel it's the strongest in this sub-genre and deserves way more recognition than it has, especially when it comes to matters such as DVD transfers and releases. The only thing that really bogs this down in any bit is, indeed, the terrible low-quality transfer that makes entire portions of the movie, including the most important portion (that being the climax) pretty much unwatchable and the distractingly terrible editing when it comes to the scenes with gore. If you can get through those things though, there is quite a nice little hidden gem of a survival horror movie waiting for you that will definitely stick with you long after watching it.