Saturday, June 23, 2012

Confessional, The (1976)

... aka: Confessional: House of Mortal Sin, The
... aka: Confessional Murders, The
... aka: House of Mortal Sin
... aka: Mortal Confessions

Directed by:
Pete Walker

Director Walker claims that some of his films were "a deliberate attempt to try and get some controversy." Such was clearly the case with this one, which uses the premise of a deranged, degenerate priest as a platform to point a finger at the hypocrisies and secretive nature of the Catholic church. Jenny Welsh (Susan Penhaligon) is a modern, independent young woman who shares a flat with - and works for - her older sister Vanessa (Stephanie Beacham), who owns a small London boutique. Jenny's relationship with her unfaithful, no-good boyfriend Terry (Stewart Bevan) is on the rocks and he decides to move on and move out. Distraught and desperately needing someone to talk to, Jenny wanders into the Church of the Sacred Heart and into confessional looking for a priest friend of hers. Instead, she ends up confessing some secrets to Father Xavier Meldrum (Anthony Sharp), including having had an abortion several months earlier. Meldrum seems a little too interested in Jenny's sex life which creeps her out and has her scurrying for the exit. In a rush, she drops her keys in the booth.

Jenny invites her friend Robert (Ian Yule) over to listen to records and have a chat. When she leaves to go get a pack of cigarettes, someone sneaks inside and throws a kettle of hot tea in Robert's face. He's rushed off to the hospital, unable to speak (at least for the time being) and the attack is blamed on the kettle exploding. The following day, Jenny gets a call about her missing keys and heads to Father Meldrum's home to retrieve them. Once there, she discovers that Meldrum in completely out of his mind. He's recorded her confession and plans on using it as blackmail to "help" her. While he claims he has been put on Earth to comabt sin, in actuality he really has more romantic designs on the poor girl. Jenny high tails it out of there but finds shaking off the disturbed priest isn't quite so easy ("You cannot survive without me!") as he begins stalking her and murdering any man he thinks may be corrupting her or threatens to expose him. Meanwhile, another priest, Father Bernard Cutler (Norman Eshley) ends up moving into Vanessa and Jenny's home. He and Vanessa end up falling in love with each other, which has Father Cutler doubting his chosen profession and if there's a real need for the Catholic church's dated celibacy policy.

When Terry (who weasels his way back into Jenny's life) tries to confront Father Meldrum about the audio recording of his girlfriend's confession, he gets beat to death and buried in an open plot in the cemetery. More victims will soon follow suit. Mrs. Davey (Julia McCarthy), whose pregnant daughter had leaped to her death after dealing with Meldrum, is off in the background quietly plotting her revenge and the always-wonderful Sheila Keith has a memorable supporting role as sadistic, one-eyed matronly housekeeper Miss Brabazon, who gets her jollies torturing Meldrum's elderly, bedridden mother (Hilda Barry), who cannot speak or move because of a bad stroke. Brabazon pours hot tea down the old woman's throat, refuses to feed her for days on end and plays records just to annoy her. She has secretly been in love with Meldrum for thirty years and blames his mother for destroying their budding relationship. Some of the religious-themed murders include strangulation with a rosary and being fed a poison communion wafer.

While Walker may shrug off the presence of meaningful content in his own films, writer David McGillivray clearly knows the inner workings of the Catholic church well, as most of his commentary is dead on and remains accurate and relevant today. No one seems to believe Jenny's story about Father Meldrum - even her own sister has doubts - and she's labeled mentally unstable simply because of everyone's blind devotion to the church. Same goes for Mrs. Davey, who was shrugged off by the police when she told them what the priest had done to her daughter. And it's all made quite clear no one wants to stir up trouble when it comes to the precious church. Ironically, things haven't changed at all since this movie was made. If anything, they've gotten worse. The church is still powerful, still believes it is above the law and still thinks that rules that apply to everyone else in this world do not apply to them. They're still highly secretive, find ways to justify their lies and are still able to successfully cover up various crimes committed by their priests while many politicians, law enforcement officials and members of their own congregations prove to be no better by either contributing to the madness or turning a blind eye to it. This movie weaves its insights about the corrupt nature of powerful organized religions into the horror in an intelligent and thought-provoking way.

The Confessional, which was originally released in the UK as House of Mortal Sin, is not for every viewer out there. It's slow-moving, minimal on blood and action and, despite the subject matter, not overly exploitative. It is however a smart horror film for those who enjoy drawing parallels between the fictional horrors depicted on screen with ones that take place in real life. The performances from the entire cast are solid and the inclusion of a sincere, well-meaning priest to contrast the psychotic one makes a nice balance. One could even say Father Cutler represents the *potentially* positive nature of the church and organized religion while Father Meldrum represents the *reality* of the church and organized religion. The film ends on a downbeat note and no question is left to which side ends up winning out. Naturally, a cover up is involved.

The Anchor Bay DVD, part of the Pete Walker Collection, contains a nearly-40 minute Walker documentary titled Courting Controversy, which covers most of Walker's films and features interviews with Walker, McGillivray, actor Paul Greenwood (from FRIGHTMARE), Graham Duff (a Walker fan and writer for Dr. Terrible's House of Horrible) and others. There's also a 13-minute mini-doc on co-star Sheila Keith titled Sheila Keith: A Nice Old Lady?, as well as a photo gallery, film notes and trailers for other Walker films.


Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

... aka: A Máscara do Horror (A Mask of Horror)
... aka: Der unheimliche Mr. Sardonicus (The Scary Mr. Sardonicus)
... aka: El barón Sardonicus (Baron Sardonicus)
... aka: Sardonicus

Directed by:
William Castle

"It's good to see you again, my homicidal fiends!" Director William Castle opens the film with an amusing prologue to let us know we're in for "...an old-fashioned story, full of gallantry and graciousness and ghouls!" Things begin in a very hazy London circa 1880, where a strange, one-eyed man drops off an important letter for brilliant young doctor Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis). The urgent letter asks him to return to a (fictional) Central European town called Gorslava. Since it was written by his lost love Maude (Audrey Dalton), who was forced into an arranged marriage to the very wealthy, much older nobleman Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe) by her father years earlier, Robert decides to cancel all of his appointments indefinitely, postpone being one of the first to make use of a brand new invention (the hypodermic needle) and boards a train toward Gorslava. Upon arrival, Robert is met by at the station by the one-eyed man who dropped off the letter - gruff slow-wit Krull (Oscar Homolka), a faithful servant of the Baron's - and heads to the castle to find out why he's been summoned there.

As soon as he enters the castle doors, Robert is greeted with the sight of the leech-covered maid tied down to a chair, or as Krull refers to her, a "guinea pig." Empty frames adorn the castle walls, no mirrors are to be found anywhere in the castle, there's a special padlocked room the servant refer to as "The Chamber of Horrors" and all of the vegetation outside is dead. Robert is soon reunited with his old flame Maude and confesses to her that he's had no other woman since her and has immersed himself in his studies and work instead. He also meets up with the Baron, whose face is covered with an expressionless waxen mask. The Baron doesn't mind flaunting his infidelities in front of his wife and has his trusty servant gather together five village girls, promising them food, wine and gold for their services. He selects the fairest of them all, but she makes the mistake of removing his mask. Mr. Sardonicus also wants his wife to persuade Robert to help him in his schemes, even if means seducing him.

Sardonicus relates a flashback to explain his current predicament. He was once a peasant named Marik Toleslawski, whose father (Vladimir Sokoloff) had given him a lottery ticket right before passing on. Eventually, Marik and his demanding wife Elenka (Erika Peters) discovered that they have the winning ticket. The problem? It was in the pocket of a vest the father was buried in. Elenka coerces Marik to dig up the grave and, in doing so, Marik emerges with the same ghastly permanent grin as the his father's corpse. It may be punishment from God, a hellish curse or just the psychological effects of a terrible shock, but either way, Sardonicus is sick of feeling like a freak and wants Robert to restore his face. Robert spends all day using heated damp towels and massage, but to no avail. All he has left are untried, experimental techniques, which he refuses to do for any amount of money. Sardonicus threatens to disfigure Maude's face unless he complies with his wishes, so Robert cooks up a clever scheme utilizing the poison of a rare, powerful plant that's said to permanently relax muscles...

After a plot twist at the end, Castle shows up again to introduce his patented interactive gimmick. This time it's the "Punishment Poll," a small glow-in-the-dark card that was handed out to viewers with a Thumb's Up and Thumb's Down picture. If audiences thought Sardonicus had suffered enough up to that point, they do a Thumb's Down for Mercy, but if they think he deserves even more punishment that he has received, it's a Thumb's Up for No Mercy. Castle knew his audience well enough to know that he didn't even have to bother shooting the "merciful" ending!

It's a fun enough minor, set-bound Gothic tale with lots of fog and appropriate costuming, black-and-white-photography and art direction. The cast is quite good, with Lewis just fine in the lead and Rolfe a suitably arrogant and loathsome dashing villain. Best of the lot though is Homolka as the sometimes sadistic, sometimes pitiful and always hilarious disfigured servant. The Sardonicus make-up design by Ben Lane is excellent and was clearly influenced by Conrad Veidt's character in the silent classic THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928). It was based on a novella by Ray Russell, which had previously been published in Playboy magazine.

The DVD comes with a 7-minute mini-documentary called Taking the Punishment Poll, which features interviews with film historian David Del Valle, Columbia Pictures rep Michael Schlesinger, director and film historian Donald F. Glut, monster enthusiast Bob Burns and director Fred Olen Ray.


Arcana (1971)

... aka: Arcane

Directed by:
Giulio Questi

First off, let me apologize for the lousy screen caps. The copy for this very obscure film I had to view - which had been recorded off the Italian TV channel Teleitialia sometime in the 1980s - was in dreadful shape. Someone was kind enough to create English subtitles for this copy, and that was the only way I was able to see it in English. Things begin with a gathering of people all looking for the apartment of a widowed clairvoyant named Rose Tarantino (Lucia Bosé). Rose conducts sessions with multiple patients in which they all sit in a healing circle, are hypnotized and then reveal all of their problems and unfulfilled desires, at which point she uses "magnetic waves" and the magical touch of her son (Maurizio Degli Esposti) to help them. Rose also conducts private sessions with clients, including palm-readings and tarot card readings. Each time, she leaves a little information obscured and encourages the client to return many more times. You know, cause more visits equals more money. A hoax? Yep. Rose even mocks her clientele behind their backs over dinner. Rose's son / helper (who is never named) is getting a bit fed up with the arrangement and his mother's frivolous spending of the money. He'd prefer to just live off of his deceased father's retirement checks.

Over dinner, Rose's son informs her that many clients who've stopped by their place are "doomed" and seems to know the fates of many of them. She warns him not to interfere with their lives, but he doesn't listen. The disturbed young man has already been dabbling in witchcraft and steals pictures from client's pockets and purses to cast spells on them. During one scene, he makes scary faces in front of the mirror then puts on a dress and pantyhose over his face. And things just get weirder and more perverse from there. When the son goes into town to cash his father's check, he witnesses both an armless man and a legless man get hauled off by the authorities for being crooks. He then visits a beach, which is littered with trash and animal bones and pulls some teeth out of a donkey skull, which are rumored to have special powers. When he returns home, he strips off his clothes and walks around in mom's high heels naked while she sniffs his dirty laundry (!) The son is so spoiled that he makes his mother bathe him, dry him off and then dress him. And when he gets scared, he comes and snuggles with mommy in bed. Seems the two are rather... close.

We learn that Rose's mother had been a powerful witch. Dishes levitate and circle around in the kitchen, cards flip over and move by themselves and flowers starting rapidly wilting. Rose has a nightmare where her son comes after her with a knife, which turns out to be a premonition. The son gets a crush on one of their clients, Marisa (Tina Aumont), who's engaged to be married to Mario. The son gouges out the eyes on a photo of Marisa's fiance, then sneaks into his mother's room that night, ties her to the bed and starts slicing her nipple with a butcher knife, demanding she tell him how to make a talisman that will make Marisa fall under his spell. She eventually relents and her son uses a charm to have his way with Marisa while she's having a seizure. It doesn't quite make her fall in love with him, though. She's still in love with Mario and is planning on moving in with him and marrying him. I suppose because of the spell, she keeps coming back to have her cards read, which keep spelling death.

This film has a fairly strong and intriguing first half before collapsing under the director's senseless "surreal" indulgences. The son sneaks a snake into one of his client's homes, which causes the family to have incest. A guy wanders through a field playing a violin. Peasants tie a donkey up and pull it up into the air. A family dances and sticks pins into a voodoo doll made of bread. A woman spits up frogs. The son starts stringing up common household items around town and make an army of obedient children bite a guy. There are constant incest overtones and a flashback of the father getting his legs cut off in a subway accident. And during the big WTF anti-climactic finale, the Tarantino home fills up with clients while Rose keeps busy in the kitchen giving Marisa an abortion. At least that's what I think she's doing. The clients start acting weird, start rubbing themselves, lick the walls and then die. A skipping female dwarf (!) arrives to deliver Marisa's wedding gown and starring naming off internal organs and body parts (?!) Gunshots are heard, a mob fills the streets and then a black dog appears. Ummm, yeah, OK...

It's quite easy to see why this was barely released in Europe and was never released in America. There's no real market anywhere in the world for this confusing, frustrating film. Bosé and Degli Esposti give effective performances under the circumstances and there's interesting use of stop motion photography for a few of the effects. The original run time is 111 minutes, but some versions have been cut down by as much as 25 minutes. The version I watched was 103.

Questi also made DEATH LAID AN EGG (1967), which has its fans. Arcana was apparently released on DVD by Video Search of Miami in 2011. Though I can't vouch for the quality of their print, it HAS to be better than the one I just watched.

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