22 May 2007

"Rituals": The 30th Anniversary Screening

In honour of the 30th anniversary of the too little-seen Canadian thriller Rituals, Rue Morgue Magazine hosted a special screening at The Bloor Cinema featuring a 35mm print courtesy of the film's co-star and producer, journeyman actor-director and genre vet Lawrence Dane. Although unfairly labeled (and, initially, dismissed) as "The Canadian Deliverance", this alternately harrowing and meditative 1977 entry into the Me-decade’s “rural horror” subgenre (spawned by the seminal American classics The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and yes, John Boorman’s more prestigious iconic drama) is miles above the standard tax-sheltered spawned, Hollywood North wannabee. To my surprise (and relief, since I was a fan of the film as a kid and have often sung its praises), it's aged remarkably well, not that the print itself was any indication (while cleaned up by Deluxe, it looked and sounded like it was put through Robert Rodriguez' Grindhouse process...more than once...).

After enduring the unfortunate warm-up act--something called "Cloven Path Ministries"—a modest crowd were warmly greeted by Dane who announced that additional members of the cast and crew were present and would be available for a post-screening Q&A.

And then the film: After some disarmingly pastoral credits, we meet five doctors, all Korean War vets, who have rendezvoused in Northern Ontario for some pre-Iron John male-bonding. They’re flown to a remote location the natives call The Cauldron of the Moon. Magical or not, it’s definitely remote ("225 miles from the nearest cathouse- that river is in the middle of the cauldron and the cauldron is in the middle of nowhere") and accessible only by air. The first night’s campfire brings personal demons into the light: Harry (Hal Holbrook) and Mitzi (Dane) are haunted by unspecified compromises to medical ethics during their careers which have driven them to booze and self-loathing as they approach middle-age. Martin (Robin Gammell) is recovering from a nervous breakdown and a series of failed homosexual relationships. Fortunately, his brother DJ (Gary Reineke) and the quiet Abel (Ken James) are better grounded and bring some much-needed levity to what is to be another annual week-long adventure.

The men awake in the morning to find that their boots have been stolen. DJ is furious that the others didn’t plan for such emergencies and volunteers to venture alone up river to a hydroelectric station to call for pick-up. Those remaining become aware that they’re being watched by someone, who taunts them with a severed deer head, then ups the ante by tossing a beehive into their path, causing Abel to trip and drown. Following DJ’s path, the trio attempts to cross a shallow river, only to find it lined with animal traps. Martin’s leg is nearly severed and he soon sinks into shock. Mitzi insists that he be left behind for later rescue, but Harry won’t have it. They “float” him down the river by on a makeshift stretcher, overcoming rapids, hunger, and exhaustion. Their mental states deteriorate with Mitzi growing more bitter and paranoid and Harry oblivious to the elements and obsessed with saving Martin’s life at any cost. When the men make camp on a barren wasteland ravage by fire, they wake up to find their tormenter has mounted Abel’s head on a stick. A military x-ray has been left for them. (“What butcher did this?” Harry wonders aloud). A war medal has been left on Martin’s chest.

Hope vanishes when they come upon a derelict hydroelectric station, which has been abandoned for some time. They’ve been left another cruel tableau: a ravaged DJ nailed to a chair but amazingly, alive—barely. Harry chokes him to death in what he feels is an act of “mercy”, which horrifies Mitzi. Harry abandons Martin and begins to add up the evidence: x-rays, service medals, army discharge documents…could Martin be right? Is this some ludicrously extreme moral test?

Harry hides out in a filthy cabin, and finds the stolen boots under the bed. A shambling hermit (Jack Creley) enters and during the struggle slashes Harry’s leg. Harry finds that he’s not only old and feeble but blind and clearly not their stalker. “Jesse” confesses that it’s his brother “Matthew” who’s been following them (“I tried to stop him…I tried. It's not safe for you here. My brother's not the same as us anymore...”). Harry uncovers some more personal items and concocts a history: Matthew Crowley is a WW2 veteran who was injured during the Pacific campaign war and subjected to a botched operation that left him physically and psychologically scarred and hateful of the medical profession.

Mitzi calls out from the woods. He’s been strung up from a tree and pleads for Harry’s help. But Harry struggles with his hemorrhaging leg wound, which he improvises to cauterize with gunpowder. Buying time for Mitzi and his makeshift procedure by attempting to bargain with Matthew, he’s able to stop the blood flow, but unable to save his friend. Matthew sets him on fire, and then moves towards the cabin for his final kill. Unmoved by Matthew’s pitiful disfigurement, Harry coldly blows him away with the shotgun. He eventually makes it to country highway where he sits to face dawn and an uncertain future.

After such a bleak and nihilistic film, the evening took on an unexpectedly sweet, familial flavour as Dane was joined onstage by screenwriter Ian Sutherland, co-star Ken James, production designer Karen Bromley, the actress briefly glimpsed as the waitress in the opening scene (the film's only female role other than the inflatable love doll), and director Peter Carter's wife. Regrettably, UK-born Carter died many years ago at the age of 48, shortly after the release of High Point (co-written by Sutherland), in which stuntman Dar Robinson famously parachuted off the CN Tower. Carter's most acclaimed film was CanCon classic The Rowdyman with Gordon Pinsent (which Dane also produced).

Dane discussed the genesis of the project: he received Sutherland's script through a producer who was a mutual friend. At first, no one was interested in financing the property in the least, least of all Telefilm Canada ("Let's face it" he said "They don't know what the f*ck they're doing!"). Dane set up the approx. $600,000 budget and after an aborted first attempt, the film was shot (with what Dane admits was more of a "completion agreement" than a completion bond) in Lake Superior’s Batchawana Bay in Northern Ontario's Sault Ste. Marie (where the film would later debut at the Soo’s Algoma Theatre).

Dane was originally set to play the lead, but when the financiers insisted on a "name" in the cast, Dane took on the supporting role of Mitzy. Hal Holbrook was cast and being a native Californian, was enchanted by the bugs and the exotic terrain. By all accounts he was friendly, but professional and a tad “remote”.

As well, Rick Baker was to due the makeup effects but was unavailable by the film relaunched. So Carl Fullerton, a Baker protégé, took over latex duties—Fullerton would go on to become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand makeup artists with credits including the Goodfellas, FX, The Silence Of The Lambs, and appropriately, the Friday The 13th sequels.

Dane admitted he hadn’t seen the film in ages and was impressed by vivid characterizations and subtle, atypical (for the genre) score by Hagood Hardy (who scored a top 10 Canadian hit with his piano instrumental "The Homecoming"), and the surrealistic vistas that were often ready-made by nature for the capable lens of DOP Rene Verzier.

On the latter subject, Dane confirmed the lab ruined some of the negative, resulting in the poor print quality in the night time scenes, esp. the climactic sequence in Jesse's cabin. Dramatically, he felt still works (ditto that), heightening the suspense and the sense of the unknown. Dane admitted that today's technology could probably help fix some of the image problems, but the rights are a mess, which is why Rituals is still not available on DVD, nor will be any time soon. He believes “a distributor in the US” owns the film right now, but for some reason, is just sitting on the property, despite raves from Stephen King (who spoke fondly of it in his "Danse Macabre") and remake interest from Sasha Stallone (yes, Sly’s son—Dane jokingly offered to play the pilot). So for now, Rituals is available only as a rare TV offering (usually cut, but Canada’s “Scream” channel’s print is intact), or as a European import DVD where it's known by its unfortunate U.S. re-release title The Creeper.

The film did “well” as far as Dane could remember, with critics non-too-surprisingly panning it because of its genre. Siskel And Ebert labeled it their "dog of the week" on their early PBS series—in the midst of their campaign throughout the 80s decade to vilify horror as an insidious artistic and social menace (interesting that for all of the duo's hue and cry over horror's inherent "misogyny", Rituals victims are all men).

Screenwriter Sutherland insisted that his script was inspired not by Deliverance, but by a two week canoe/camping trip he took through Northern Ontario with a friend--"which can change you a lot". He thought of using doctors as his characters because he felt they were amongst "the most civilized" type of person, given their enormous responsibilities, and it would be dramatic to see them driven to their basest survivalist instincts. Originally, his characters were intended to be much younger, but he had to rewrite very little of the dialogue for the middle-aged cast.

He was applauded for including an openly-gay character in a genre effort, and for its non-exploitive inclusion, other than through a casual line of dialogue by sympathetic Marty he laments on his life and drinks a little too much during their first evening around the campfire. Unlike Deliverance with its up-front fear of homosexual rape, here the male friends are unfazed by their friend’s lifestyle, which must’ve been a pretty daring thing in a pre-Will And Grace 1977 (much like the lead actor of Night Of The Living Dead being black but otherwise colourless in his character function—just another reason why I’ve long defended the unprestigious and woefully misunderstood horror genre as the most progressive in film).

Sutherland recalled that he and then-art director Bromley researched WW2 veterans who were tortured and imprisoned in Hong Kong. As the night went on and the drinks flowed, the vets became more candid about their horrifying ordeals, often making blackly humorous jokes. That being said, he never meant the film as any type of allegory or statement about war or the treatment of veterans. It was shot shortly after the end of Vietnam, and references WW2 and some of the doctors are Korean war vets, but he wishes he could take credit for any "message" people have read into it.

Sutherland set the story in Sault Ste. Marie because he knew the terrain (he’d originally planned to use the Algoma train to get the men into the Cauldron).

Ken James admitted the shoot was "dangerous" and that some of what was onscreen was real (like the initial scene where the men ineptly navigate crossing the river). Carter encouraged improvisation to establish the rapport between the characters.

What stuck in his memory most was the bee scene: the bees themselves were docile and largely harmless, until you bothered them. So the more the actors scuttled and waved their arm, the more aggressive the insects became. Most of the cast, James joked, spent the shoot with swollen fingers from the stings.

As well, his wife was shaken when came upon his fake head casts made that Fullerton would literally “bake” on location. He was claustrophobic, and didn't enjoy the casting process.

Seeing the film as an adult (my first time in about 25 years), I was impressed by its mature tone and Carter’s mastery of day lit terror, with violence set pieces modestly employed but always disturbing and excruciatingly personal, elevating the production above the level of “Jason from Sault St. Marie”. While the shadow of Deliverence looms large over any thriller about guys lost in the woods, Rituals has a sustained, melancholic grace that anticipates Peter Weir’s elegiac Picnic At Hanging Rock and Gus Van Sant’s existential, absurdist Gerry. And perhaps other than the Claude Jutra adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, it’s a rare Canadian film that embodies what Northrop Frye termed “The Garrison Mentality” of Canadian literature that expresses fear of the landscape and hostile "others" (here, a single homicidal individual). Highfalutin’ aside, it’s a damned good crackerjack thriller--one of the finest made anywhere, anytime.

Rue Morgue’s next screening will be held June 21, and it’s another tip of the mortician’s hat to CanCon terror: the late Bob Clark's Deathdream, a Vietnam-era allegory inspired by Jacob’s “The Monkey’s Paw”—don’t miss it!