Review: House of Mortal Sin, aka The Confessional (dir. Pete Walker, 1976)

House of Mortal Sin

House of Mortal Sin
UK, 1976
Director: Pete Walker
Writer: David McGillivray

Review by N Emmett.

A young woman named Jenny (Susan Penhaligon) is involved in an on-and-off relationship with a two-timing rogue named Terry (Stewart Bevan). In a fit of desperation, she visits a local church and speaks to the priest, Father Meldrum (Anthony Sharp), for advice; in the process, she confesses to having had an abortion.

Jenny departs from the confessional in a hurry, but soon finds that Meldrum has taken an obsessive interest in her. The men in her life begin to fall victim to brutal assaults, and the priest turns out to have recorded her admission to being involved in abortion – placing him in a position to blackmail her as he chooses…

As with Pete Walker’s earlier film House of Whipcord, House of Mortal Sin is a film about the conflict between cruel, hypocritical establishment and victimised youth. Father Meldrum is allowed to get away with his crimes because he is a trusted authority figure, while Jenny is dismissed as a mere hysterical girl by the police. Indeed, Meldrum is shown to have put other girls through similar treatment: in the prologue, one of his past victims returns home in tears and promptly commits suicide.

msin1Despite the clerical nature of its villain, House of Mortal Sin is not necessarily an anti-Catholic story. Jenny’s friend Bernard, a young man who has recently joined the priesthood, acts as the representative of a newer, more progressive and easy-going church. In one defining scene, he argues that the priesthood should abolish its demand for celibacy; Meldrum is outraged by this suggestion. Of course, as Meldrum is motivated ultimately by his sexual frustrations, the film clearly portrays Bernard as being in the right.

There is a definite giallo touch to House of Mortal Sin, with Meldrum donning black gloves to carry   out elaborate murders (asphyxiation by rosary being a particularly lurid example). However, the film’s true genre roots lie in the old dark house tradition.

Meldrum shares his house with two other people: his mute, bedridden mother, and a one-eyed housekeeper. A cold, Lady Macbeth-like figure, the latter character only factors directly into the msin2plot at the very end of the film, and for most of her appearances serves primarily to emphasise the grotesque nature of Meldrum’s private life.

In one scene, Meldrum admits his sexual interest in young girls to his mother – who, in her incapacitated state, is unable to do anything about the situation. The message is clear: it is all very well for us to confess to priests, but who can the priests confess to…?

As is often the case when crime bleeds over into horror, the film’s plot has its share of implausibilities. While the whole point is that Meldrum is a trusted establishment figure and therefore presumed innocent, it nonetheless strains credibility that nobody alerts the authorities to his behaviour even when the evidence against him begins to pile up. However, the film’s plotting is so tight – with a twist coming along whenever things look as though they will soon be neatly sorted out – that it is easy to ignore the occasional lapse in logic.msin3

This release from Odeon contains a few special features focused on director Pete Walker, who provides an audio commentary (accompanied by English Gothic author Jonathan Rigby) and an interview about his career; also included are trailers from of his other films.

Hailing from the time when the British horror industry was moving away from Hammer’s trademark gothic, House of Mortal Sin is a low-key but effective number which is well worth dusting off for another look. Its combination of thriller, horror and social commentary cannot be called subtle – but it works a treat.