Sunday, 10 January 2010

House of Mortal Sin

1976
Dir. Pete Walker
AKA The Confessional

Jenny, (Susan Penhaligon) a troubled young girl, seeks help at her local church. Unfortunately for her, the sexually frustrated priest Father Meldrum (Anthony Sharp) she confesses to, becomes obsessed with her. He begins to stalk her, however as his increasingly unhinged mindset continues to unravel, it becomes obvious he will stop at nothing, including blackmail and murder, just to get close to Jenny.

‘He's gone out again. You're all alone ... with me.’

If House of Whipcord was Walker’s attack on the Establishment and the penal system, House of Mortal Sin is surely his scathing defilement of the Roman Catholic Church. Released in the States as The Confessional it plunges the viewer into even darker territory than before.

Walker drew on his own fears and opinions as a lapsed Catholic to create a more considered and mature film than most viewers would have expected, particularly given its lurid title and somewhat taboo subject matter. Typical of Walker though, the film was a deliberate attempt to shock audiences and critics at the time. The film is the concluding segment of an unofficial ‘trilogy’ of sorts along with House of Whipcord and Frightmare.


As mentioned, Walker’s own dislike of Catholicism – based on his upbringing in a Catholic School – lends a certain gravitas to the provocative points that he makes about the dangers of organised religion, fanaticism, abuse of authority and the power Priests wield over their ‘flock.’ Walker commented on priesthood, openly stating: ‘It’s such an uncivilised way of life … All that hypocrisy.’ The film is lent further power in light of the recent revelations of abusive priests in the Catholic Church and the steps taken to keep it a secret.

The thought of a murderous priest slowly killing off members of his congregation is not a pleasant or subtle one. Like most of Walker’s ‘villains’ however, Meldrum is a well written, three dimensional character and we often see him during moments of quiet contemplation as he struggles with his actions and their consequences.
As Father Meldrum becomes increasingly obsessed with Jenny, he believes that he can ‘save’ her from her sinful ways and promiscuous lifestyle, while simultaneously blackmailing her. To say that this guy has double standards is an understatement, yet Sharp’s assured performance enables us to pity him as well as abhor him for his ghastly deeds. Walker regular Sheila Keith’s portrayal of the overbearing housekeeper also helps heap flesh onto the bones of another full blooded character.


Opening with the suicide of a pregnant teenager, the tone of House of Mortal Sin grows progressively graver – it’s later revealed that father Meldrum drove her to suicide, and perhaps countless other lost souls seeking redemption in the arms of the church. Matters are made more complicated by his curate, Father Bernard Cutler (Norman Eshley), who is beginning to doubt his vocation, and embarks on a relationship with Jenny's sister Vanessa (Stephanie Beacham). The warmth omitted from these three provides respite from the film's overwhelming gloom. This being a Pete Walker film though, things don't turn out well for our three hipsters.

Driven to the brink of sanity by his own repressed sexuality and guilt-ridden past, Father Meldrum also has to contend with the stifling hold his senile mother and obsessive housekeeper Miss Brabazon (Sheila Keith) have over him and his own fanatical views on the declining morals of society. It comes as no surprise to discover he has been driven to madness, corruption and murder. Sharp’s tortured portrayal of the tormented priest lends the film an undeniable air of credibility, even as the depraved Father sermonises on the virtues of living a pure and moral life while committing brutal murders. Characters are killed by all manner of theistically linked relics such as poisoned wafers, rosary beads and incense burners. As comedic as this may sound, the execution scenes are chilling to the core and are perhaps some of the nastiest Walker has filmed. The film’s tone is relentlessly bleak and grim, yet the effective and really quite compelling script by Walker and regular writing partner David McGillivray consistently draws us into the story and further into the dark recesses of one man’s unfolding madness.


Interestingly, Walker approached Peter Cushing to play the role of the crazed Priest. Cushing however had to decline due to prior commitments.

House of Mortal Sin is a relentlessly taut and dark excursion into a debauched and murky place that will leave its remnants on the viewer long after the credits roll…

5 comments:

The Vicar of VHS said...

This one has been on my Netflix queue for a while now--I have loved some of Walker's stuff and been unmoved by others, but this definitely sounds like a worthwhile watch. Thanks for the write-up!

James said...

Thanks for stopping by - this is really worth checking out. As a fellow fan of Walker's stuff, I think this is up there with Frightmare and Whipcord...

C.L. Hadden said...

I've just added this one to my Netflix list- looks right up my alley. Sexually frustrated priests, madness, and murder? I'm there;)

Carl (ILHM) said...

You are always two steps ahead of me James, I have been wanting to see it for a while and now I am all the more excited! I love House of Whipcord and Frightmare, so this should be a blast

James said...

Hey Carl - if you liked Frightmare and House of Whipcord I'm sure you'll dig this. It's just as relentlessly dark - if not more so - than thay are, and has that same scathing wit Walker fans admire him for.