With his roots deeply planted in sexploitation cinema, British director Pete Walker became a horror film (or “terror films” as he likes to call it) specialist by the mid 1970s with offerings like HOUSE OF WHIPCORD and FRIGHTMARE. Both films were scripted by the talented David McGillivray, and the successful collaborations lead to THE HOUSE OF MORTAL SIN (aka THE CONFESSIONAL). Walker and McGillivray created something far removed from the classically structured efforts of Hammer and Amicus, amalgamating controversial and tabloid-ripped issues with the conventional gruesomeness that the decade was known for.
Jenny Welch (Susan Penhaligon, THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT) goes to a church confessional to converse with her old friend Bernard (Norman Eshley, THE LOST CONTINENT) who is now a young Catholic priest. Since Bernard is not there, Jenny ends up confessing to Father Xavier Meldrum (Anthony Sharp, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE) about her devotion to her constantly straying boyfriend and that she recently had an abortion. Obviously mad (and I mean cuckoo), Father Meldrum – who lives with his invalid mother (a 91-year old Hilda Barry, HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM) and sinister one-eyed housemaid Miss Brabazon (Sheila Keith, THE COMEBACK) – becomes obsessed with Jenny, and has tape-recorded her confession for blackmail purposes. His fanatical ideals lead him to a bloody trail of murders which he sees as deserved punishment, and to throw more fuel on the fire, colleague Bernard decides to leave the priesthood after professing his love for Jenny’s sister and roommate Vanessa (Stephanie Beacham, DRACULA A.D. 1972).
Basing the screenplay on a story by Walker, McGillivray’s script is full of inventive ideas which were obviously meant to shock and stir up controversy. Having the villainous murderer a repressed and crazed Catholic priest in modern times brought a new and different kind of monster to the catalog of British horror, and he’s marvelously played by Sharp. A lapsed Catholic in real life, Walker uses the film as a comment on organized religion, as extreme and satirical as it may be, with Father Meldrum mauling his victims via poison holy wafers, flaming incense burners and deadly rosary beads. The film’s characterizations are well thought out, and showing that there are two sides to every coin, Norman Eshley’s Father Bernard, and to a more fleeting extent, Mervyn Johns’s Father Duggan contrast Father Meldrum’s malevolence by being sympathetic and very human (Johns is probably best known as the actor who played Bob Cratchit in the 1951 version of SCROOGE, here in a memorable cameo). Susan Penhaligon is well cast as the assertive damsel in distress, and her desperate attempts at convincing everyone of Meldrum’s true nature is opposed with rampant disbelief, much like what Mia Farrow faced in ROSEMARY’S BABY. Stephanie Beacham, always the fetching scream queen, is effective as the concerned sister overcome with love for a man exiting the priesthood, and Walker’s frequent star, the incredible Sheila Keith, is properly menacing as usual. Since this is a Pete Walker film, the Grand Guignol type thrills are on display, as is the atypical unhappy ending which makes his genre efforts so unique.
Previously released in the U.S. as an underwhelming-looking DVD from Media Blasters, THE HOUSE OF MORTAL SIN is here given the HD treatment on Blu-ray with an impressive 1080p transfer. The film has been presented fully uncut in a fitting 1.66:1 aspect ratio in a picture that has nicely defined images, bright and bold colors and film grain is still visible but never obtrusive. The original English audio is presented in a LPCM stereo track, which is more than acceptable for the film, delivering dialogue cleanly and carrying out Stanley Myers’ score well.
The commentary on this Blu-ray was originally furnished for the “Pete Walker Collection” released in the U.K. by Anchor Bay Entertainment, and carried over for the Media Blasters Region 1 DVD of a few years ago. It features Walker and is excellently moderated by Jonathan Rigby (author of the essential book, English Gothic), which is chock-full of information about the film. The commentary never seems to run out of energy, as Walker reveals such things as originally offering the Anthony Sharp role to horror stalwart Peter Cushing, how he thought the film would have caused more of a stir than it did, and so much more. The new featurette “An Eye for Terror: Part 2” (11:00) is a continuation of Elijah Drenner’s conversation with Walker, who talks about how he got interested in cinema, and maintains that his bestl known films are more “thrillers” and he doesn’t think of them as horror movies. Walker mentions how he tried to make his pictures well paced and interesting, admitting that if he was to make the same films today, there wouldn’t be nearly as much dialog. Walker also touches upon the distribution as well as critical reaction to his films upon release. Trailers for THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW, HOUSE OF WHIPCORD, FIGHTMARE, THE COMEBACK and HOME BEFORE MIDNIGHT round out the Bu-ray’s extras. (George R. Reis)
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