House of Mortal Sin
Dir. Pete Walker
AKA The Confessional
Jenny, (Susan Penhaligon) a troubled young woman, 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 British Establishment and the justice system, House of Mortal Sin is surely his scathing defilement of the Catholic Church, or perhaps just organised religion in general. 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 strict 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.
As Father Meldrum becomes increasingly obsessed with Jenny, he believes that he can save her from her 'sinful ways' and her thoroughly modern 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 an immensely dark scene in which a desperate pregnant teenager takes her own life, the tone of House of Mortal Sin grows progressively graver – it’s later revealed that father Meldrum drove her to take her own life, and perhaps countless other lost souls seeking help and 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 deeply murky place that will leave its remnants on the viewer long after the credits roll…