Friday, February 10, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: Special "Canadian DELIVERANCE Ripoff" Edition

Often lumped in with DELIVERANCE ripoffs, these two Canadian productions have attained sizable cult followings in the ensuing decades since their release.  Neither really follows the plot of the 1972 classic, other than putting men in the wilderness, trapped in a situation spiraling out of control.  In short, there's no "squeal like a pig" moment in either of these films, and one actually plays more like a precursor to Walter Hill's 1981 film SOUTHERN COMFORT, itself lumped in with the post-DELIVERANCE subgenre without real cause.

SHOOT (1976) is an occasionally fascinating film that too frequently fails to live up to its potential, mostly due to a sluggish pace and lackluster direction by Harvey Hart (THE PYX).  SHOOT's strength is the commanding, quietly frightening performance by Cliff Robertson as Rex, a department store owner and gun enthusiast who oversees a local militia group and lives for weekend hunting excursions with his war buddies, among them Lou (Ernest Borgnine) and Zeke (Henry Silva), and a few others.  After a bad day where no one's bagged anything, they encounter another group of hunters on the other side of a creek.  They stare at each other, and a shot comes from the other side.  Zeke opens fire, killing a member of the other group.  Both groups flee the scene, and Rex reads in the paper that the other group told authorities it was "a stray bullet."  From this, Rex concludes a) they didn't want to tell the authorities they shot first, and b) they want to settle the score.  This is all Rex needs to dive back into his combat fantasies, and the other men, with the exception of the "bleeding heart" Lou, are only too eager to stockpile weapons and ammo to go into battle. 

The message is ham-fistedly clear:  these men never left combat and are only happy when they're killing, regardless of the success of their everyday professions (Rex's store, Lou's printing press, Zeke's barbershop--who the hell thought casting Henry Silva as a barber was a good idea?).  Robertson does his damndest to sell it, and there's intriguing character bits throughout--his dysfunctional relationship with his wife; two other women seemingly throwing themselves at him; all the macho talk; the willingness to bully and mislead his inexperienced militia group--mostly local guys barely out of their teens, just looking for something to do and a place to hang out--into what will certainly be a bloodbath.  But the pace is so slow and the energy so low that SHOOT just never gains any momentum, at least not until the stunning climax, but by then, it's too little too late.  Lots of interesting ideas--not just with Robertson's character but with some of the others as well, like Zeke's disgust at letting Rex's black store security chief into the group.  Most impressive is an extremely uncomfortable, awkward scene where Rex bluffs his way into the home of the dead man's wife (Kate Reid) under the guise of being an old friend paying his respects (he actually wants to find out how much she knows).  She starts off by asking if he's a gun nut as well, and we think she's going to go off on him, but instead, goes into an ugly, bile-filled rant about how guns are necessary "with all the hippies, druggies, and jigs that wanna break into your home and rape you," followed by her coming on to Rex and announcing that she isn't wearing any underwear.  There's a lot of moments like this that make SHOOT memorable, like it's better than it is, but as a whole, it's curiously not.  With all the things there are to admire about its occasional audacity, Hart too often drops the ball with clumsy editing (Silva just disappears from the climax, probably because he had to work on another movie), abandoned subplots (what about Rex being propositioned by another buddy's sexually frustrated wife?), and general incompetence (the boom mic peeks into the frame about four times).  I can see how SHOOT has found a cult, but it's still a bit of a letdown. (R, 95 mins)

RITUALS (1978), on the other hand, totally deserves its cult rep.  Almost unbearably grueling at times, the film, shot in 1976 and directed by Peter Carter, has five doctors on a six-day hiking trip in the remote wilderness.  They're dropped off by plane and totally cut off from civilization, which makes it very convenient for them to be systematically tormented, stalked, and eventually offed, by a madman occasionally seen as an ominously shadowy figure in the trees. It's hardly an original idea, especially in the 1970s, but RITUALS excels with some gritty, believable performances by Hal Holbrook (as Harry), producer Lawrence Dane (as Mitzi),  Martin (Robin Gammell), his brother D.J. (Gary Reineke), and Abel (Ken James).  Not only do they expertly sell the idea that they're old friends (my friend Marty McKee, at his Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot blog, has cited the way they talk in shorthand shows uncommon character development in low-budget, B-movie fare like this), but they have a willingness to dive right into the shit and live the terror these characters are going through.  These actors earned every penny of their paycheck on this one, out in the elements--climbing, crawling, dragging through mud, getting swept down rapids--with minimal use of doubles or stuntmen.

RITUALS is a smartly-written film with some truly terrifying set pieces (the shots of the killer watching them from a distance are extremely unsettling), that in many ways transcends its lazy labeling as "a DELIVERANCE ripoff."  I wouldn't put it in the same class as DELIVERANCE, but it's definitely near the top of the "wilderness horror" subgenre.  Code Red's DVD, released in April 2011 after a two-year delay, is the uncensored 100-minute version and, while not perfect, is about as good as this will ever look.  It's also available on some of those low-priced, public domain "50 Horror Classics" sets under its alternate title THE CREEPER, but it's a shoddy, fullscreen transfer that's probably the 89-minute edited-for-TV version that was released on VHS. (R, 100 mins)

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