Jenny (Susan Penhaligon) visits the local Catholic church to have her confession heard by the immoral Father Meldrum (Anthony Sharp), who is perversely interested in her sex life. Rushing to escape his prying, she drops her apartment keys which Meldrum uses to invade her house and blackmail her by threatening to publish her recorded confession. Father Meldrum is looked after by his sinister housekeeper, Miss Brabazon (Sheila Keith) and when Jenny's boyfriend Terry confronts Meldrum, he is attacked with incense in the churchyard. Father Meldrum's standing in the community means that no one will suspect or accuse a man of the cloth; but in the meantime more people begin to die in mysterious ways through poisoned communion water and strangulation by rosary beads...
Spoilers follow ...
- House of Mortal Sin review by NP
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The word ‘exploitation’ has been linked with Pete Walker films, but he has questioned its meaning. After all, as he reasons, just about every film made now is exploitation-al in that nudity, sex and violence – often far stronger than in Walker’s films – feature as a matter of course and without much comment.
Pete Walker retired from directing films after 1979’s under-age sex drama ‘Home Before Midnight’, but was tempted back to direct his last, ‘House of Long Shadows’ in 1983. His films were frequently lambasted by critics; indeed, he sought to provoke controversy (‘rubbing them up the wrong way,’ as he called it) by deliberately featuring salacious themes throughout. And yet, as with many things, there is a new appreciation for his work now. He was independently releasing British horror films at a time when Hammer, Tigon and Amicus had long since given up on the genre and for that alone, deserves a great deal of merit.
We join this film with Jenny Welsh (Susan Penhaligon) enduring severely testing times. Regularly jilted by her live-in boyfriend, she has no-one to talk to of her woes and enters into a confessional at her local Church. The vicar Father Xavier Meldrum (a tremendous Anthony Sharp, who made a career playing vicars and librarians for many years) turns out to be somewhat perverse, so she flees, only to find she left her keys in the confessional booth. Breaking into the shop where she works with her friend Robert, she leaves him alone momentarily to buy some cigarettes, and when she comes back, she finds he has been attacked by a ‘mysterious’ stranger.
When it is revealed that Father Meldrum is a schizophrenic murderer caring for a disabled, housebound mother and intimidated by a bullying one-eyed housekeeper Mrs Brabazon (the incomparable Sheila Keith), it’s no great surprise. We are in familiar Pete Walker ‘Frightmare’ territory, revisiting themes of respectable establishment figures berating the young for their lapse morals, whilst turning out to be perverts and psychopaths themselves.
This is cited as Pete Walker’s favourite directorial experience, with professional actresses like Penhaligon and Stephanie Beacham needing less time-consuming guidance than some of his female protégés. ‘House of Mortal Sin’ is a typically enjoyable experience, although in common with his other projects, it is highly unlikely that his villains would get away with their burgeoning crimes for such a long time. It tends to drag in places, another of my problems with his earlier projects. Cutting 10 to 15 minutes might well have improved matters.
Calling for God’s forgiveness before strangling Beacham with rosary beads, methodically reading the last rites to his senile old mother before poisoning her (whilst Mrs Brabazon looks on with a sneer) and ending the film with the lunatic vicar still very much at large – all this may well have been deliberate provocation on behalf of Pete Walker to attract controversy. Judging by his comments in interviews ever since, that controversy never really happened, much to his disappointment.