Forgive Judge Gordon Sullivan, Father, for he has sinned.
Tortured by desires his vows forbid…master of a house of mortal sin!
The 21st century has not been kind to Catholicism. From continuing scandals surrounding the abuse of minors by priests to the continual foot-in-mouth pronouncements of various popes, especially where contraception is concerned, we've seen a continual tarnishing of the Holy See's image in recent decades. But that's hardly a new thing. The Church has had its share of detractors just about forever. More recently, though, people have been able to be more brazen about their dislike of the Church. One of the more brazen is House of Mortal Sin, aka The Confessional, which gives us the tale of an obsessed priest driven to murder. Though I sympathize with director Pete Walker's distrust of Catholic priests, I can't help but think a better film could have been crafted from that animosity.
Father Xavier Meldrum (Anthony Sharp, A Clockwork Orange) likes to tape the confessions of his parishioners. This gives him the material he needs to blackmail them when he becomes obsessed with one young woman in particular. When some of those parishioners start to show up dead, the noose tightens around Father Xavier macabre plans.
House of Mortal Sin has two things going for it. The first is that Pete Walker has a lot of rage towards the Catholic Church. By his own admission, Catholic school was not a good experience for the director, and he obviously resented the "fire and brimstone" teaching. Couple that with a healthy disdain for the hypocrisy that members of the clergy seem to show on a regular basis, and you've got a recipe for a vitriolic attack on Catholicism. To do so, Walker turns one of the most sacred spaces of the Church—the confessional—on its head. Rather than a sanctuary of piety and forgiveness, the confessional becomes the space where a rogue priest obsesses over the transgressions of others. Though there are numerous anti-clerical films out there, few get as raw and personal as Walker's story.
The film's second strength is related. Walker spent most of his filmmaking career in the world of sexploitation, only swerving into horror later on. House of Mortal Sin benefits from that history. Walker knows how to layer on the sleaze, and everything about this film just feels dirty, in the best possible way. From the leering, perverted priest to the various murders, everything about the film is drenched in the kind of lurid detail that makes viewers pine for the halcyon days of the grindhouse.
House of Mortal Sin is also worth watching for fans of the slasher film. Released in 1976, the film falls in between Bava's early '70s films like Bay of Blood and the later development of the slasher proper in 1978's Halloween. We have a few of the hallmarks of the genre—the lone perverted killer preying on a young sexually available victim—but the film isn't quite a slasher yet. Part of it is that it's infinitely more sleazy than most slashers could claim to be until well into the '80s. Another part is the lingering mystery plot that seems to drive the film, which feels especially British somehow.
This Blu-ray also demonstrates a surprising amount of love and attention for the film. The source print will never receive the deluxe treatment, but it's in surprisingly good shape, which leads to this 1.66:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer. Detail is pretty strong, with grain looking appropriate and film-like. Colors are well saturated, especially the deep blood-reds, and black levels are consistent and deep. For a film of this age and budget, House of Mortal Sin looks better than fans could hope for. The LPCM 2.0 Stereo track shows a bit more age but still keeps dialogue clear and balanced with the film's score. It's not immediately impressive, but as good as we're going to get for a 40 year old exploitation film.
Extras are ported over from the previous DVD release and start with a commentary featuring Walker and author Jonathan Rigby. Rigby keeps Walker talkative about both the film and his career, making for an informative and entertaining track. There's also an 11 minute interview with Walker, and trailers for five of his films (including this one).
No amount of sleaze or subversive intent can mask the fact that House of Mortal Sin isn't much fun to sit through. The main culprit is pretty abysmal pacing, which goes from super slow to manic murder and back to super slow with no apparent care for audience attention. Even those used to exploitation-style films who go looking for the sleazy charms of Walker's films might find this one a tough sit because of the uneven pacing.
House of Mortal Sin is a strange entry into the exploitation world. It's got sleaze to spare and an interesting pre-slasher murder plot, not to mention heaps of disdain for organized religion. However, none of that can really overcome the uneven pace of the narrative. Fans of Walker's British take on the exploitation film will want to own this one, but with no new extras I'm not sure the audiovisual upgrade will tempt a lot of fans.
Not great, but not guilty.
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