It's rare, but you'd better believe it exists: a blatant rip-off that's actually better than its source material. The film in this case is Rituals, and the source is Deliverance. Shot on location in the Northern Ontario bush, Rituals follows five vacationing doctors on an extended wilderness hike. They're targeted by an unseen madman who begins by pulling a few nasty pranks, then ups the ante to murder. As the atrocities pile up, the victims slowly begin to figure out their assailant's bizarre motive.
The film is considerably more violent than Deliverance, which is appropriate since Deliverance is basically an action film (albeit a pretty dark one) whereas Rituals is straight-up horror. Despite the gruesome violence, however, this is a heavily character-driven horror film (something we never seem to get enough of), and all the performances are superb. Holbrook in particular is (typically) impressive as Harry, a bitter cynic who's fighting desperately to survive while fighting even harder against being degraded.
I can't help but wonder if Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez didn't watch this one before embarking on The Blair Witch Project; besides the obvious city-folk-lost-in-the-woods motif, much of the tension in Rituals derives from conflicts between the characters. These are old friends with a lot of old scars and resentments that get closer to the surface as their situation becomes more dire.
Rituals was relased with little fanfare in 1981, played largely at the bottom of the bill at drive-ins and released on vid with even less fanfare a short while later. It couldn't be described as a genuine rarity, but it's not that easy to find, either. The VHS copy I tracked down last year looks and sounds like a bootleg, although the boxcover looks legit. This is precisely the kind of overlooked gem that needs to be remastered and re-released to find the audience it deserves. Are you listening, Anchor Bay?