Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Confessional (1976) dir. Pete Walker

a.k.a House of Mortal Sin

Logline: One day, Jenny (Susan Penhaligon), a young English girl with errant boyfriend issues, wanders into a church and ends up confessing her troubles to the resident priest, Father Meldrum (Anthony Sharp), who-- unfortunately for Jenny-- turns out to be a murderous crusader against sins both great and small and whose dangerous, fast-growing obsession with her will put the lives of all of her loved ones in peril.

Viewing a slew of Pete Walker's horror films over a short period of time reveals to the viewer that the director and his handful of regular screenwriters are working from a pretty well-defined formula. Here are the ingredients: a) an inciting crime that occurred at some point in the diegetic past and has been long-since buried, only to be uncovered near the film's conclusion, b) human, non-supernatural villains brought to madness and murder by psychological repression (generally either sexual in nature or created in conjunction with the trauma of that inciting past crime. Sometimes both), c) conservative morality clashing with contemporary liberalism, manifesting in violence perpetrated by the older generations against the younger, and d) grim, cynical resolutions that either end in the outright victory of the villains or, if the villains fall, partial villainous victories due to the total destruction of some aspect of the protagonists' lives. But breaking Walker's horror output down to these essential shared components might lead one to believe that his films are needlessly similar rehashes of a successful plot. While there may be a shred of truth to that notion (after all, Walker financed and produced most of these films himself and so had to guarantee he'd make his money back. What better way to do that than by remaking a film he knows will sell until it stops selling?), it might be more just to label them variations on a theme. The fact that Walker never strayed from his particular approach to horror filmmaking (even as the genre itself evolved into a diverse, multi-headed beast over the decade of the 1970s) demonstrates the same sort of obsessive circling of theme and situation as present in the filmography of a director like Jess Franco, who has suffered similar erroneous accusations of storytelling laziness in the pursuit of salable product. With each of his films, Walker returns to his themes and situations in order to play them in a different key, adding notes across the bars where it suits him, and each time he finishes he's produced a recognizable tune, certainly, but one that places unique and fascinating emphasis on nuances that may have been mixed far into the background on previous recordings.

Take The Confessional as your example. At a basic level it's a repetition of the same bloody clash between the young and the elderly over issues of morality that we've seen in The Flesh and Blood Show (1972) and House of Whipcord (1974), but a deeper inspection of its story reveals a new complexity added to the old formula. In this particular instance we have a murderous priest, Father Meldrum, who believes he was "put on this earth to combat sin" and obstinately refuses to adapt the church or himself to the times. (His position is contrasted against that of a progressive younger priest, Father Cutler (Norman Eshley), who is working towards the abolition of the vow of celibacy for Catholic priests: an act that would, ironically, help to solve Meldrum's deep-seated psychological issues. When Cutler informs Meldrum that "The times change, and we must change with them," Meldrum shoots back, childishly, "By whose orders?!") Meldrum abuses his position of moral and religious authority in the aide of sadistically blackmailing and psychologically torturing young girls who have detailed their sins to him in confession. The lecherous holy man records their private conversations about intimate details and then threatens to reveal these secrets to the girls' friends and family if they do not follow his twisted commands for contrition, which drives at least one of his victims to suicide. Meldrum's blackmail takes on an even creepier air (as if such a thing were possible) when he grows enamored with one of his victims, Jenny, who reminds him of an unrequited love from his youth.

And this is where The Confessional gets interesting and diverges significantly from its predecessors: Father Meldrum is himself a victim of the older generation's sexual repression of the younger. Meldrum is a momma's boy, hopelessly devoted to his ancient, physically addled mother (Hilda Barry), with whom he has shared a home for his entire life. When he was a young man decades before the film's events, Meldrum had fallen in love with a girl (portrayed by Sheila Keith as an older woman) but instead of consummating that love he had been pushed by his jealous and moral mother into service with the church, preventing him from ever marrying or leading a life not dictated by religious restrictions. His attempts to repress his own desires (complicated by the fact that his would-have-been lover dedicated her life to serving him and his mother as a sort of maid) drove him into becoming the monster that he is. This late revelation opens up an unexpected wound in our villain that we're urged to sympathize with, while simultaneously complicating and expanding the regular theme of Walker's horrors: society's elders have always sought to suppress the perceived liberty of  the youth, making Walker's critique timeless rather than particular to the expanding sexual freedoms of 1970s England. This taut, pacey, bleak-as-all-heck thriller possesses the added benefit-- beyond all of its delectable, slasher-rific gore-- of showing us what sad monsters we'll become if we let our elders keep us home.


  1. I haven't seen any of Walker's output so far, but I've been curious about his films for some time. I'll have to rectify that soon, especially given your laudatory reviews.

    Not very similar, but this movie reminds me of ABSOLUTION with Richard Burton, which I haven't seen either. Have you come by it?

    1. Walker is very much worth checking out. My favorites of his are FRIGHTMARE and THE COMEBACK. Those might be good places to start, as I think they show his talents at their height. All of the ones I'm covering this month are enjoyable (to varying degrees) but they don't quite touch those two.

      I hadn't heard of ABSOLUTION, but it sound enticing. I'll watch nearly anything with Burton in it, and creepy kids are always a plus.