Clerical Error – Rediscovering ‘House of Mortal Sin’ (UK 1976 – 104 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - January 15, 2014
Clerical Error – Rediscovering ‘House of Mortal Sin’ (UK 1976 – 104 mins)

Also known as ‘The Confessional’, this dark but interesting horror movie from British director Pete Walker is actually better than its reputation suggests. As with most of Walker’s low budget flicks, the film is fairly well acted, very atmospheric, and features Walker’s common theme of the brutal authority figure taking the law into their own hand.

The story is a simple yet attention-grabbing one. Upon finding out that she is pregnant, young Jenny Welch seeks comfort from her local church confessional. Resident priest Father Xavier Meldrum becomes obsessed with the troubled Jenny, and will stop at nothing to rid her of her moral transgressions.

In a part originally intended for Peter Cushing, familiar character actor Anthony Sharp had a rare starring role here as the psychotic Father Meldrum. A veteran of TV comedy and minor movie parts, Sharp was adept at playing authority figures. Most notable were his roles as a minister in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971), a Politician in Sci-fi sleeper ‘No Blade of Grass’ (1970), and the 1983 Bond flick ‘Never Say Never Again’, as a Lord.

26 year old Susan Penhaligon was a familiar face on British screens at the time. After co-starring in the Doug McClure favourite ‘The Land that Time Forgot’ in 1975, Susan’s breakout role came the following year in the controversial mini-series ‘Bouquet of Barbed Wire’. This led to genre parts in the 1977 horror anthology ‘The Uncanny’, and the decent Aussie fright flick ‘Patrick’ (1978), before settling into popular UK Television shows, such as ‘A Fine Romance’ (1981) and more recently ‘Emmerdale’ (2006).

Pete Walker’s favourite actress Sheila Keith was given another juicy part here as Meldrum’s evil housekeeper, Miss Brabazon. So memorable as the wicked Warden in ‘House of Whipcord’ (1974), Keith would later have smaller roles in Walker’s ‘The Comeback’ (1978) and his final movie ‘House of the Long Shadows (1983). Here she brings menace once again as the malicious Brabazon, devotedly turning a blind eye to Father Meldrum’s twisted desires.

‘George and Mildred’s Norman Eshley plays kindly curate Bernard, while Stephanie Beacham is good as Jenny’s concerned sister, Vanessa. This was 29 year old Beacham’s second part that year in a Pete Walker movie, the other being the mild slasher ‘Schizo’. Other supporting parts went to Stewart Bevan as Jenny’s arrogant boyfriend Terry, Hilda Barry as Meldrum’s bed-ridden mother, and a guest appearance by Mervyn Johns as Father Duggan.

Understandably controversial, the movie features some wickedly tasteless murders. One particular imaginative scene involves a bloody death by incense ball, while others involve a poisoned communion wafer, and a strangulation by rosary beads. Pete Walker’s regular scribe David McGillivray wrote the script, and the talented Stanley Myers contributed his third of five musical scores for Walker.

To me this is one of Walkers best films (1974’s ‘Frightmare’ probably takes that title), but with a wonderful central performance by 61 year old Anthony Sharp, and a rather downbeat ending, ‘House of Mortal Sin’ is an entertaining, if slightly overlong, slice of British seventies mayhem.

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