The 1970s was filled to the brim with Catholic Church focused horror and exploitation efforts, most notably dealing with some sort of possession ala The Omen and The Exorcist. And then you have all of that habit shredding, lasciviously sacrilegious sleaze of the Nunsploitation genre. But where was Priestsploitation? It wasn’t really a thing. Ever. There is 1992’s priest-killer slasher Happy Hell Night, 1981’s martial arts/horror mess Killer Priest which is more commonly (and fittingly) known as Kung-Fu Exorcist, and then a handful of giallo titles that involve (or don’t involve) murderous holy fathers including Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), The Bloodstained Shadow (1978), The House with the Laughing Windows (1976), Who Saw Her Die (1972) and What Have You Done to Solange? (1972). And then there’s Da Hip Hop Witch (2004) starring Wu-Tang Clan’s Killah Priest, but we can let that one go for now.
With that out of the way, there is one film from the 1970s that features a man of the cloth doing all sorts of sinister shit and that is Pete Walker’s House of Mortal Sin (1976). Also released – much less sensationally – as The Confessional, Walker’s film isn’t so much a work of horror or exploitation as it is a work of dread and sorrow. For all of its gory set pieces (of which there are a few), Walker focuses this more so on the dynamic of the priest in question – Father Xavier Meldrum (Anthony Sharp) – and those that he ‘helps,’ making this as much a story of a priest as much as it is one of a mentally disturbed one.
The bare bones narrative is that a young girl visits Meldrum in confession, during which he coaxes her into discussing her sex life while he records it. He then becomes increasingly obsessed with her, to the point of doing – and killing – anything he has to in order to be near her. It almost plays like a late 80s/early 90s erotic thriller featuring a priest, only nothing all that erotic is ever shown. But damn if this doesn’t make you feel dirty after watching it nonetheless.
Walker handles the overt religious content fairly well. He never comes off as making attacks on the church and the iconography on display – the poster and Blu-ray cover feature the strangulation by rosary – isn’t solely used for sensational effect. It all feels surprisingly organic for something – and coming from someone known for – so rife for exploitation. Which could also be where it fails.
House of Mortal Sin isn’t necessarily a short film – it runs about 100 minutes – and it feels as long as it is. The shocking set pieces are spaced pretty far apart and the second half begins to become a slog. Luckily, it’s all wrapped up pretty neatly and effectively in the end but getting there can be tough especially if the audience is expecting something a bit more quick dirty. That said, there’s a lot of reward here for those that can accept its slow pace and sleazy misgivings. This is a careful, borderline respectful thriller with a religious slant that is intriguing without ever being overbearing. Walker fans and those who dig slow burn thrillers should get a lot out of it. Anyone expecting Flavia the Heretic with a priest should look elsewhere, or nowhere for that matter.
Kino’s Blu-ray is on par with their other Walker titles, with a nicely sharp 1.66 transfer that has deep blacks and bloody reds that pop against a mostly pale color palette. I’ve never seen it outside of this disc, but I can’t imagine it looking much better. Sound is only available in a 2.0 LPCM track that handles the soundtrack well. The score and dialogue are balanced and once I had the volume set, I was never reaching to adjust it.
Special features include a commentary track with Walker and film historian Jonathan Rigby which is filled with information and anecdotes for the director, an 11 minute interview directed by American Grindhouse director Elijah Drenner, its original trailer and trailers for other Walker Films. A very satisfying package for fans.