Remembering Hal Holbrook’s Best Genre Performance in Underseen Gem ‘Rituals’

Actor Hal Holbrook carved out an impressive and prolific career in television, theater, and film that spanned more than half-a-century. The Emmy and Tony-award winning actor developed a reputation for his turn as Mark Twain onstage and several TV roles, but for the horror fan, he’s best known for his work with John Carpenter in The Fog and Creepshow. As unforgettable as Holbrook was as Father Malone or Henry Northrup, respectively, the real genre showcase for Holbrook’s talents is the underseen gem Rituals, an obscure and creepy Canadian backwoods thriller.

Rituals, also known as The Creeper, follows a group of doctors that embark on a remote excursion deep into the Canadian wilderness. It’s so remote that they have to be flown in by plane and scheduled to be picked up days later, miles down a river. The trip is part of an annual tradition in which the doctors decompress from their stressful jobs and lives via camping. The expedition would be challenging enough from a physical perspective. Still, the men quickly prove to carry emotional baggage on their journey, too, in the form of alcoholism, debt, and more. Then they’re beleaguered by a series of incidents that make it abundantly clear they’re being stalked and hunted like prey.

Holbrook leads the cast as Harry, a neurosurgeon, and Korean war veteran. Harry is joined by Mitzi (Lawrence Dane), Abel (Ken James), Martin (Robin Gammell), and his younger brother DJ (Gary Reineke). A few quick bonding scenes later, the campers wake and discover their shoes are missing. Only DJ brought an extra pair, sending him off on a long solo quest to a dam for assistance. A day later, after a deer carcass appears near the camp, the group decides to set off after DJ. That’s only the beginning of their troubles, as their numbers dwindle and survival grows less certain by the hour.

Rituals bears apparent parallels to John Boorman’s Deliverance in setting, style, and tone right down to the early camaraderie between the leads as they unwitting set off for a nightmarish journey. Questions of ethics in extreme situations fuel both. Written by Ian Sutherland and directed by Peter CarterRituals does draw clear inspiration from Deliverance but slowly transforms into a far more satisfying survival thriller more akin to a slasher.

Unlike Deliverance, Rituals doesn’t reveal the backwoods killer stalking them until the third act. The former film, mainly remembered for its uncomfortable rape scene, loses momentum in its final act as the traumatized men mistakenly shoot a random stranger, then cover up their act as they head back to civilization. It’s a much more introspective climax that centers around the emotional aftermath of what the characters endured. In Carter’s film, his leads face a constant barrage of death and injury by both the elements and an unseen foe. As the dwindling survivors resort to infighting, with the calm Harry frequently clashing with the erratic Mitzi, their situation drives these friends apart. Rituals offers a far more satisfying climax, with the pragmatic Harry going full Rambo to fight off a dangerous and horror-movie appropriate hunter. 

Rituals‘ strange distribution meant it was released two years after it was made, and it tanked upon release. In turn, that meant this Canadian thriller slipped through the cracks into obscurity. That it bears such a close resemblance to a heralded 1972 classic certainly didn’t help. But Rituals fully embraces its genre elements, building to a potent finish. The body count is higher and the terrain even more perilous. The nuanced approach to the characters, with backstories gleaned from dialogue, contrasts with the harsh survival elements, makes for a far richer tale than it initially appears. And Holbrook’s shift from philosophical doctor to ruthless survivalist is remarkable, making this underseen cult gem worth the watch on the strength of his performance alone.

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