While the “naughty nun” is such an exploitation film trope that you can get a huge tome devoted to the films that utilize it, the “killer priest” is a less regular figure in the halls of horror. While there are a few flicks here and there that utilize a man of the cloth as a slaughterer of today’s reckless youth (usually doing the job for reasons of “morality”) such as a number of giallo films and the 1989 slasher HAPPY HELL NIGHT, the fatal father never reached the same level of infamy as his habitual sisters. It’s possible that that’s due to the idea that a priest is even more trusted of a figure so that the taboo of one slicing up young people never had the same impact (or, alternatively, that it wasn’t taboo enough, because a priest is automatically seen as a suspect anyway) or it could be just that priests don’t have tits, so they couldn’t sell their nudity to the grindhouse crowd as well.
In any case, Pete Walker’s 1976 film HOUSE OF MORTAL SIN is a bit of an outlier. Anthony Sharp plays Father Meldrum, a priest with plenty of blood on his hands, and while he’s depicted as being a madman, it’s implied that the policies of the Catholic Church are partially responsible for his condition – a stand not too surprising considering Walker’s anti-Catholic stance. It’s a compelling performance and an interesting character, and proof that you can certainly do provocative things with the subject, even if those things, in this case, resulted in the film being dismissed as being full of “unabashed attacks on Catholicism.”
The film opens with the suicide of a young woman who throws herself out of her second-story window after coming home to her parents in tears. We then cut to Jenny Welch (Susan Penhaligon), a young woman in the midst of breaking up with her “record plugger” boyfriend who happens to run into old friend Bernard (Norman Eshley) who has gone into the priesthood. Looking for the now-Father Norman, she wanders into his church and chooses to go into the confessional, where Father Meldrum coerces her into talking about her sex life and an abortion she’d had, tape recording it and using it for blackmail.
Nobody will believe her claims that the good father could be so corrupt, even after he attacks a friend of hers who ends up in the hospital, unable to identify his assailant. Meanwhile, Jenny’s sister Vanessa (Stephanie Beacham) romances the young Bernard, who begins to question his ability to serve the church in his current capacity, and the mother of the young girl who killed herself investigates her daughter’s behavior. Soon, the body count begins rising with deaths including a poisonous consecrated host and a strangulation with rosary beads – not exactly the most subtle ways to imply an issue with the Catholic Church, but certainly an eye-catching one.
The oddest thing about HOUSE OF MORTAL SIN, however, is that it doesn’t feel like an attack on Catholicism so much as a gentle suggestion that they should be more progressive with regards to ideas of sex. Even after Father Norman meets with his kindly monsignor, you get the idea that the film isn’t any kind of an attack on religion, but just something that suggests that Catholicism may be better equipped if they actually acknowledged that people had libidos – a suggestion that’s still having problems being heeded today.
Walker is certainly in top form with atmosphere here, as the nature of the project (and Walker’s history with the Church, mentioned on the commentary track) assures an embracing of the church’s gothic qualities that utilize plenty of archetypical religious images to eerie effect. It’s a bit puzzling as to why Meldrum’s identity is hidden during the first attack, as though the film was set up to be a mystery, but Walker has a fair share of clever directorial choices that complement the film nicely, including the inclusion of a record player whose tones are used for optimal moodiness.
Sharp is fantastic as Meldrum, and even if the character is never quite convincing enough to not be suspicious around everyone who’s supposed to be oblivious to his derangement (one character even dies when he’s clearly the only other person in the room – and nobody bats an eye!) he’s a compellingly disturbed individual that manages to be both frightening and oddly human. The same goes for Sheila Keith as Meldrum’s eyepatched assistant that cares for his invalid mother, as she reveals an uneasy menace that’s as fascinating and completely different from her psychotic role in Walker’s FRIGHTMARE. The other characters are memorable, though Penhaligon’s Jenny isn’t really given much to do but fret about things and try to convince others of Meldrum’s guilt, not even being involved in the film’s climax!
HOUSE OF MORTAL SIN feels like one of Walker’s most personal works, and it certainly shows. A solid thriller with a fine cast and several highly memorable moments, those with a love of British horror shouldn’t hesitate to pick it up, especially if you’re a Walker fan. Those looking for something on the sleazier side may be disappointed – while there are shocks to be had here, Walker was clearly aiming beyond lurid thrills – but those wanting to see a religion-based horror pic with a head on its thematic shoulders won’t be let down.
First released on VHS here under the title THE CONFESSIONAL in 1983 from Prism Home Video and then released on DVD from Shriek Show under the same title in 2006, Redemption’s new issuing reverts to the film’s original theatrical title and marks the first foray onto Blu-ray. Presented in a 1.85:1 ratio as it was shot, the transfer is quite good, though there is some grain here and there. Ported from the earlier release is a commentary with Walker moderated by author Jonathon Rigby that finds the director in a very talkative mode as he discusses the making of the film (and his issues with the Church) with a fine memory. He also appears on the 11m interview AN EYE FOR TERROR PART TWO, directed by Elijah Drenner. (Part 1 appeared on DIE SCREAMING, MARIANNE) Trailers for MORTAL SIN and some other Walker films in the series are also included.
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