I’ve been a Pete Walker denier for some time; the British director rode a wave of public interest in sex and horror features in the 1970’s, and print quality hasn’t helped with a critical re-assessment. While plenty of British films from the period have a sleazy feel, Walker’s films have an unpleasant authenticity which suggests that he was uncomfortably in tune with the social underbelly his films are set in. So a world of cheap sex and moralistic violence isn’t very beckoning at this distance, so why bother? A chance acquaintance with Walker’s 1975 cheapie House of Mortal Sin proved me wrong…
Horror movies are ten a penny, and there’re pretty much all the same template. House of Mortal Sin is something else. This is a killer priest movie, but not in a Gothic or melodramatic way; the priest in question is a trusted figure in his community, and there’s very effective scenes in which Father Xavier Meldrum (Anthony Sharp) plausibly re-assures his parishioners that their suspicions are nothing more than idle anxieties.
Sharp was a very recognisable supporting actor, from Kubrick to James Bond, but manages to pull something haunting out from his one and only leading role. Meldrum’s house is indeed a house of mortal sin, presided over by his imposing one-eyed, bottle blonde housekeeper Miss Brabazon, played with troubling intensity by Sheila Keith. Meldrum and Brabazon are up to no good, taping confessions and using them to blackmail vulnerable parishioners, notably Jenny (Susan Penhaligon).
Brit film addicts will find plenty to enjoy in this cast, from Mervyn Johns to Stephanie Beacham, and even a rare straight role for Andrew Sachs, Manuel the waiter from Fawlty Towers. But although the violent scenes are shocking, they’re not over-done, and the film remains strangely sober-minded and tuned into the priest’s twisted mind-set.
House of Mortal Sin aka The Confessional Murders is quite a sordid little film, but it leans more towards Claude Chabrol than The Conjuring, and it’s steely resolve to follow the main character into a very dark rabbit hole makes it quite compelling. Not a classic, but a unique British horror film that locates something unnerving and immoral in the supposed pillars of society.