Format: Internet video on the new internet machine.
I love when a movie or show seems to be prescient. I recently watched the Watchmen television show, which came out in 2019. Everyone in the show wears masks, and at one point, someone literally says the words, “Masks save lives.” So much of that show feels like it actually came out this year. House of Mortal Sin, also known as The Confessional has a bit of prescience in it as well. While it’s not the first film to have a wayward and cruel member of the clergy, it does very much feel like the first film to feature a clergyman who is both the villain of the story and who is clearly motivated by sexual frustration.
The film opens with the evident suicide of a young woman. We then meet Jenny Welch (Susan Penhaligon) almost being run down in the road by her old friend, Bernard Cutler (Norman Eshley). It turns out that Bernard is now Father Cutler and has been placed in this parish. Later that day, Jenny heads to the church, hoping to find Bernard in the confessional. Instead, the confessional is manned by Father Xavier Meldrum (Anthony Sharp). Jenny, unwilling for whatever reason to tell him the real reason she is there, instead confesses to problems with her boyfriend, and also to having had an abortion in months prior.
Well, it’s going to be Father Meldrum who is our villain here. It’s soon evident that he has become immediately obsessed with Jenny, following her to the shop she lives above. As it happens, Jenny has told him that her on-again/off-again boyfriend has left her. Unfortunately for her friend Bobby (John Yule), Meldrum thinks he is the man who has done her dirty, and he assaults him, putting him in the hospital. We also learn that Meldrum has taped Jenny’s confession and plans to hold this over her.
Father Meldrum’s obsession with Jenny would be enough to make this film work, but there’s so much more going on. First, we’re going to learn that Father Cutler is strongly considering giving up his vows because of the presence of Jenny’s sister Vanessa (Stephanie Beacham). That would make a cute romance, honestly. We’re also going to get the ominous one-eyed presence of Miss Brabazon (Sheila Keith), the caretaker for Meldrum as well as the person who takes care of his evidently Parkinson’s-ridden mother (Hilda Barry). It’s soon clear that Brabazon is frequently abusive to the old woman. All the while, Meldrum’s obsession with Jenny spirals out of control, causing him to break a few of the more serious of the Commandments.
House of Mortal Sin could have easily been a schlocky film that goes straight for shock value, making a priest be a sexual frustrated killer, but it goes for a lot more. It really wants to be so much more than that, and it really does go for something deeper than just some prurient thrills. It’s a descent into madness that, just when you think it’s spiraled its last, continues for a few more turns until the very end.
House of Mortal Sin is at a fascinating point in movie lore. There is a sense that this is following in the tradition of the Hammer films, that it wants to follow the same gothic tradition, but it also wants desperately to move into a more modern era. This is, after all, after films like The Wicker Man and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and while there’s not a great deal of gore here, it definitely wants to walk in those circles.
If I have an objection to the film, it’s one that it’s not at all responsible for. The actual ending here is truly horrifying. It was bad enough in 1976, creepy and awful. Knowing what we know now about the Church and how it’s decided to pay for its many crimes, the ending is absolutely terrifying. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a great ending, but it’s also one that I hate as much as I appreciate it.
I don’t really know why films like this disappear from public consciousness. This should be a film that is as well-known as any great horror movie from the mid-1970s. House of Mortal Sin may, in fact, have suffered from an ending that seemed unsatisfying at the time, even as it now feels like it was foretelling the future.
If you’re at all a fan of lesser known horror films that can still pack a punch, you’d be remiss not to track this down. It’s free on YouTube at the moment, and you won’t be sorry you watched it.
Why to watch House of Mortal Sin: It’s prescient in all the best ways.
Why not to watch: The ending is horrifying based on the Catholic Church’s past crimes.