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The Rite Of Spring (1995)
Director: Michael J. Murphy

review by Paul Higson
Spoiler alert!
Made immediately before his Tristan there were expectations on Michael J. Murphy's The Rite Of Spring because whatever the faults of earlier exercises, there was always pace, storytelling and clearly some filmmaking skill. What, with Tristan's surprise hold on the viewer, The Rite Of Spring should prove at least to be a visible stepping stone to that new standard. The Rite Of Spring moves, a Murphy film is not conventionally boring or still but there is a failure to engage this time. The mystery thriller is this time not so much enthralling as it is confusing and there is nothing weird enough to compensate until the twist is called in. It's a good twist, just too late.
   Father John Doyle (James Reynard) is covering for a local priest with a terminal illness. His parish is to include the impressive Cavenham acreage, home to the last of the Cavenham line, staff and a tiny enclave. The Cavenham estate was recently taken over by next of kin Chris (Timor Kocak), a young American, and he continues the tradition of acting the squire over those residing on his land. Father Doyle is lured onto the estate to inspect Emily (Kate Steavenson-Payne), the teenage daughter in one of the resident families who is showing signs of possession albeit in a short-on-change-and-a-mind-on-the-swear-box version; this isn't the only area in which the film is shy. Emily's 'possession' is cleverly inter-cut with snaps of the girl calm, chugging on a cigarette. There is clearly a plot afoot. Up at the mansion Father Doyle is introduced to the household, primarily Chris and his personal assistant and lover, Claudia. Claudia had previously been visited by her brother, Ash, who suspecting something terribly wrong with the set-up, tried to convince her to leave, settling instead for the promise that she will keep in touch. He is abducted on the drive out and later used as the prey in a hunt, gunned down by Cavenham and his Scandinavian houseguest, Anders.
   At the meal table there is theological banter though it is never as interesting as those around the decanter, including the puppy priest, would appear to find it. The game continues to change, the Scandinavian houseguests have to leave, seemingly aglow with the plans for killer pagan world domination in their ruddy cheeks but are also stopped by the 'peasants' and violently slain, canvas sacks pulled over their heads, drenched in petrol and set alight in the seats of their car.
   The old priest dies, but not before Doyle has brought in specialist support from the suspicious scholar Olivia Dyson, who has been gathering evidence that suggests something unusual is brewing, something for them all to beware. Emily has done a runner into the night having badmouthed her father, Eric. When next she turns up it is dead in the boot of Father Doyle's car, and he is manhandled by the villagers, locked in the barn through the slats of which he witnesses the burning of the body on a funeral pyre. When released, Chris tells him that it was a dream and that Emily is still missing. Claudia is the next to flee, troubled by the direction in which things are going. The last thing she needs to find is that decapitated head of her brother on a stake in the woods. It is not going to be the last head on a stake either.
   There is a twist, and it is entirely possible that the film can be more appreciable in its twists and turns on repeat viewings assuming that someone has the muster to go back in and watch it again. The chief problem with The Rite Of Spring is that there is a pre-existent film called The Wicker Man, which is why I began with emphasis on the lack of weird. Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man dripped in a strangeness that The Rite Of Spring completely fails to allude to, instead relying on the obvious aspects of paganism. In The Wicker Man there was a non-stop eye on the curious and a sly taunting whereas in The Rite Of Spring it is a flat weekend toying with heathenism. The phenomenon that is The Wicker Man is so peculiar that little on the same them could come up against it and match it in any visual or verbal moment.
   The pluses in The Rite Of Spring are knocked down by the innumerable minuses. The puzzle is far greater than the plot, made a couple of years before Julian Richard's Darklands, Murphy at least knows better than to take the plot through to the conclusion of The Wicker Man, but even that does not pay off for Murphy as no matter what you could come up with it will never be as devastating as the ending of The Wicker Man.
Rite of Spring - behind the scenes
There is at least a new angle and that is that the 'peasants' are working both with and against their 'squire' that is quite unique. Horror films, like action films, are drawn neatly plot-wise into two tidy factions, the good guys and the bad guys, Christian symbols pulled out of the props cupboard as handy tools against evil. Here, the evil practitioners are turning on one another. Certainly there are horror films in which rival monsters face off, team vampire against team werewolf recently, but when has a script been so bold as to turn it into rebellion and mystery? Most inspired it is too, and the resultant film suggests that the film moved too quickly into production, settled on a draft too early, perhaps because the season was upon them and 12 months was too long a wait for the incredible productive Murphy to reset production to.
   The peasants have tired of hundreds of years of exploitation to these murderous ends. They see the Catholic religion as a benign alternative and their rescue (let's not call it salvation) in the young priest, Father Doyle, were waiting for a stronger replacement for the weak, aged priest, their decision having been made. By then it is too late, they are already tainted by the practices, cold to the horrors. Some of the killings have a feel of the violent murders of the unresponsive bay people of Gary Sherman's Dead And Buried.
   One of the many clever touches comes at the beginning when we see Emily thrashing about on the bed and snarling, before settling into a mischievous laugh; she is rehearsing for the plot, but on it's own unexplained it certainly still maintains curiosity value. The acting varies. James Reynard is badly cast, the role gives him little to do, and the glasses and haircut make him look like a third brother for The Proclaimers. Timor Kocak is an unexciting villain, there is simply not enough leery in the man, certainly no evil, he is the least impressive of film bad sods. Most of the performances are okay but Kevin Ryan puts in too early a vocal presence and every sentence he is allowed is like another advertising hoarding pasted with the announcement, "This man cannot act!" And unfortunately his character is not killed off.
   There are other problems with the film. The upper class display of the main house is unconvincing, the fencing tournament in the grounds not at all cute or as eccentric as it is meant, only an excuse for some fight choreography, which Murphy delights in, not so much because it adds to the film but because it is a challenge each time for him to meet. Sex is of importance, and the unabashed frolicking of The Wicker Man is an embarrassment to The Rite Of Spring that on its low budget or deferred payments is clearly never going to persuade any of its cast to get frisky enough. Modesty is protected by a tree or a clothed body lain down in bed and a champagne bottle; (oh, no, sorry, that was Austin Powers, but it's in that preserve). Orgies are reduced to a third person running from a room. They need to behave a lot more au natural than this.
   A papier-mâché ball at the close of the movie passes itself off as a maggot-riddled decapitated head, an astonishingly awful image to end on; a little more effort could have been tried on the goodbye note. The pastoral montages are pleasant, accompanied by electronic music of zonked melody; it is so wrong, so awful but still drawing.
   Some research has been conducted and again, The Rite Of Spring beats Darklands in one detail, the head garland worn by Kate Steavenson-Payne is part of a good costume. I did at first play the opening minutes with the Sun finding it's way into the lounge and it felt right to view it with the season streaming in. Perhaps I will try that. It is entirely possible that the valuable elements in The Rite Of Spring could work for the film with follow up viewings, that it is only in the confusion and surface dullness that there appears to be all of, and nothing more, through most of the film on the first run that drops this film dead on a first viewing. If only I'd trusted the confusion, read into it a little deeper, but then, whoever does?
Rite Of Spring

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Kate Steavenson-Payne
Emily (Kate Steavenson-
Payne) in pagan attire.





Michael J. Murphy
Michael J. Murphy
and the 'pram-cam'.





LEFT:
Murphy directing a scene...
James Reynard, far right.

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