Monday, May 16, 2022

In Canada, "Deliverance" is pronounced "Rituals"


When a recipe works, you keep making it. It's as true for marinara sauce as it is for horror subgenres, and it's why a post-Deliverance world includes more than its share of movies centered on cocky urbanites meeting terrible fates in the vast wilderness.  

Quick Plot: Nearing 40, five former med school pals embark on an annual weekend trip, this time a 15 mile hike through the forests of Canada. Our helpful helicopter pilot sets the stage clearly: they'll be completely alone and out of reach, with no one to reach or hear them until they pass through the deepest parts of the woods.

Things would have gone fine had our quintet not committed the cardinal sin of any group outing horror flick: the dreaded cheerful group photo.

It NEVER goes well.

The trouble begins when the guys wake up to discover their boots missing. Despite ringleader DJ's detailed Xerox'd packing list instructions, nobody bothered to bring a second pair of shoes (see: people have been ignoring the equivalent of group texts since the '70s). DJ doubles back to get help while the remaining four begin to see more signs that they're not alone. 

For starters, there's the severed deer head staked over their tents, a snake perfectly positioned to create a caduceus. The reasonably spooked campers decide to start moving, which drives them straight into a series of impressive booby traps: a loose beehive that leads to Abe's death, and a water set bear trap (MY FAVORITE) that knocks out Martin, DJ's brother. It's up to the morally questionable Mitzi and the group's conscience Harry (Hal Holbrook) to carry him to safety. 

As you just might guess, Rituals is more than a little a product of Deliverance's success. Thankfully, as knockoffs go, it's also a very, very good one. The combination of Ian Sutherland's script and top shelf actors means we get surprisingly deep character development built through dialogue alone. There's 20 years of bravado, guilt, and judgement between the men to build conflict, and that's before we even know just what kind of insane but extremely resourceful psychopath is hunting them down. 

Hal Holbrook (apparently the most expensive thing in the movie) holds it together with the kind of deep presence we don't always find in these lower priced genre flicks. His decades-brewing beef with Lawrence Dane's more selfish (but not necessarily wrong) Mitzi drives so much of the film's third act. Without spoiling anything, their back and forth is ultimately much more interesting than the actual horrors at play. 

High Points

Sometimes it's the non-horror choices that make a horror film so interesting. In the case of Rituals, it's that our soon-to-be-victims are 40something doctors and surgeons, all at different points in their careers (both professionally and morally). It goes such a long way in establishing them as men with a very particular brand of educated confidence

Low Points
While there's some interesting ground suggested by the reveal of the villain, it ultimately feels so much less developed in comparison to how much story we get from the rest of the group

Lessons Learned
A word like "incompetent" can do serious ruin to a man's reputation

Live your life in such a sunny manner that when you die, your friends dub you a gentle boob

Never limit your food supply to what has to be boiled

Rituals isn't the best of its very specific (and prolific) subgenre, but it's certainly up there and will scratch that Deliverance-y itch. Find it on Shudder. 


  1. I've put off watching this one because I assumed it would be that 70's sort of depressing (the presence of Hal Holbrook in particular)... but your description is reminding me a bit of The Descent... so I think I oughtta watch it.
    I'll also recommend (kind of) a weird (not horror) movie called Shoot (1976)... which must have had some influence from Deliverance, but... well, it's different. Not a great movie, but a peculiar examination of men and their guns.

    1. Hal Holbrook really is such a walking ball of sadness! But nah, I'd say this isn't specifically depressing. I would definitely believe The Descent took some notes from this one. Well worth a look. And I've never heard of Shoot, but I'm definitely intrigued!