Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Kult DVD of Rituals: a review

Ardent followers of this blog know that I love the Canadian horror film Rituals (which I wrote about here, here, here and here; I even gave a trashing review to the butchered Synergy R1 release on Amazon). It's by far our best urban-rural horror entry and one of the most intelligent and considered "horror in the woods" films from any country, with a rich, fruitful simplicity that practically forces an archetypal reading on the perceptive viewer. "Five doctors on vacation, with divergent takes on medical ethics, are stalked in the woods of Ontario by an unseen force bent on murder" - that's a plot description that won't spoil anything for anyone. (Genre-savvy types will be able to figure out that the doctor with the most stringent ethics, played by Hal Holbrook, is the hero, but the sacrifices he must make - "ritual" sacrifices? - are what make his ordeal, and the film, meaningful. I will strive to say no more). It's not exactly a Deliverance knockoff, though it is often taken as such; as, I believe, John Sayles has (kindly) said about the similarities between The Return Of The Secaucus Seven and Lawrence Kasdan's later The Big Chill, it's not a ripoff, it's just a genre film in a very small genre. In fact, since (much as I admire both the novel and the film, and respect the movie's seminal role in establishing and legitimizing this genre) I find Deliverance's homophobic rite-of-passage rather politically distasteful; since I'm much more interested in the querying of conscience found in Rituals; and since I do have a streak of Canadian nationalistic pride, at least as far as cinema is concerned; and since I'm a root-for-the-underdog kinda guy, I would say Rituals is my preferred film of the two. (Also on my urban-rural horror admiration list are Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre; they might also score above Deliverance, too, come to think of it, tho' obviously none of these films are objectively as important as their forbear).

Anyhow, there's been a European DVD with burnt-in German subtitles, probably only playable on PAL-friendly R2-compatible players, popping up on eBay now and then, apparently put out by a company called Kult. I thought I would weigh in, for those curious: it is, indeed, the complete film, and may even have a few minutes that were missing from what I took to be a whole print that screened at the Vancity Theatre a few years ago. (There were a couple of moments I didn't recall, anyhow). By the way, gorehounds out there should calm down about the "uncut" version hysteria that attends this film: it's not gore that gets cut from the various chopped up versions (sometimes distributed as The Creeper); it's character and theme stuff, deemed unimportant by whatever hack fucked with it. There's not much gore in any version of the film, complete or no - a severed head, a hand blown to bits, some wounds... To my recollection, it's been there in all five versions I've seen. The shorter cuts are just deprived of less important things, like narrative rhythm, character development and thematic coherence.

In addition to preserving the rhythms and theme of the film - right down to the far more significant title (The Creeper - indeed!), what the Kult DVD has that no current North American DVD release has is all the dialogue. In fact, it has the added bonus of having pretty good audio. (This DVD review, from which I lifted the above screen capture, finds the audio problematic, but I suppose it depends on what you're comparing it to, eh?). Marty's speech about teaching a monkey to salute and his attendant (thematically relevant) babble about the ritual they are all caught up in is often impossible to hear in VHS or film versions that I've seen - since it happens in the presence of a noisy stretch of rapids; it is nicely cleaned up, so not only is there stuff I don't think I've seen before in the film, there is definitely stuff I have never heard before. It also looks like whoever prepared the film for DVD release took pains to "brighten" the very poorly-lit "cabin scene" at the end of the film; even though this creates its own problems - distortion in the image - it makes bits of action previously nearly impossible to see relatively clear.
Relatively, I say.

There are even bonus features: a few alternate title sequences (all of which begin with the water plane coming in to land, as did the Vancity print; the Kult version begins with shots of the wilderness that I don't think I've seen before), and a well-crafted trailer for the film, exploiting that "Teddy Bears Picnic" song, not used - thank God - in the film itself (the Hagood Hardy score is bad enough).

Now for the downside: the source print is NOT very clean, is faded and slightly pinked (but not as pink as the Vancity print was!), and it has dirt, scratches, and even jumps around a bit. It's not full-frame - there are narrow black bands at the top and bottom - but it isn't the original aspect ratio, either; it is slightly cropped (compare to the Videomatica DVD - the same one I wrote about on Amazon - which has a widescreen title sequence, if nothing else to say for it). And there's damage at the junctures between reels, too, so that a couple of lines of dialogue actually disappear (nothing too damaging, but the jumps are disconcerting - you can tell you missed a word or two, and wonder what they are). Perhaps the worst bit of the Kult presentation, due to the fading and imperfect aspect ratio, is when the men are following DJ's line across the river; there are cuts to the beartraps awaiting them under the water, but the image is so dark, faded, and some material on either end is missing, such that you can't really see what's going on. (None of this will be a problem if you've seen the film before, but you're meant to be sitting in suspense, realizing the traps are there, wondering what will happen; instead - until the traps start snapping shut - you're wondering what the hell you're supposed to be seeing).

Oh, and then there's the non-removable German subtitles (unless you watch the German dubbed version also on the disc, that is - there are no subtitles there!). They really weren't that intrusive, and I kinda had fun trying to figure out how accurate they were (my guess is: not very).

At the final reckoning, I'm glad I own the DVD. People who have never seen a complete version of the film and wondered how much better it is will be happy with it; people who have been waiting anxiously for a decent R1 DVD release will be glad to own it. I watched it happily and intently today, and will watch it again someday; there are friends I will show it to. Assuming your players can handle the format of the disc, it's definitely worthwhile - mostly because, for those who admire the urban-rural horror film, it's one of the best films in the genre.
On the other hand, it's not such a good version of the film that I won't feel the need to replace it. This is a good tide-you-over disc for film obsessives, but no reason to stop anxiously hoping someone does something to restore and present this film properly!

By the way, the seller I bought this off on eBay goes by tsimonelli. It arrived promptly and was well-packed; I recommend his services.

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