Home Video Hovel: House of Mortal Sin, by Aaron Pinkston
By House of Mortal Sin’s release in 1976, religious-themed horror films had already hit the scene. The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby brought the devil into the bedrooms of normal folks, while Carrie and The Wicker Man showed the dangers of zealots. None of these films, no matter how great they are, attacked the Catholic Church like unsung auteur Pete Walker’s film about a crazed priest obsessed with a young woman.
The story follows Jenny Welch, said young woman, who, after reuniting with an old friend who has unexpectedly become a priest, seeks out his church. There, she is manipulated into giving confession to Father Xavier Meldrum. Meldrum uses his status and crazed persistence to work his way into Jenny’s life by any means necessary. House of Mortal Sin doesn’t take the obvious track of a “killer priest” movie, with sinners being punished as some sort of moral cleansing, but instead is a unique psychological probe into Father Meldrum’s personal demons — making him more than just an emotionless maniac at the heart of similar slasher fare.
Representatives of the Church aren’t just shadowy or vaguely creepy, as they are in most negative portrayals, but morally evil — in the film’s centerpiece moment, Father Meldrum records Jenny’s admission of an abortion and then plays it for her while wondering how awful it would be for her family to find out she murdered her unborn child. The Church has been under plenty of heat for even worse things, but if they were this explicitly evil, they surely couldn’t get away with it. Still, being a priest is a pretty brilliant cover in the short term. What upstanding individual is going to distrust a man of the cloth, even when he isn’t particularly hiding his insanity? This idea fills the latter half of the film, with Jenny’s sister and closest friends worrying about her startling accusations. This isn’t an original trope in psychological thrillers, but it plays well enough to keep some tension.
At its best the film plays like an above average Hammer film, though without the schlock and sexuality (the thought makes me imagine Peter Cushing in the role of Father Meldrum and I get a little tingly). In his stead, veteran actor Anthony Sharp does a fine job in the role — he carries a wise and trustworthy stature, but plays the darker moments without judgement on his character. I also see a Hitchcock influence (what 1970s thrillers weren’t inspired by Old Hitch?), especially from his later, more violent period. Besides a few slasher scenes, House of Mortal Sin is more interested in building tension slowly through tortured psyches and camera movement. Overall, House of Mortal Sin is a decent drama with a bit of blood and a few shocking ideas.
Released through Kino Lorber’s Redemption label, the purveyors of underseen horror and exploitation films, House of Mortal Sin is coupled with a newly filmed interview with writer-director Pete Walker, as well as an audio commentary track. The transfer on the Blu-ray is superb, keeping the grainy 70s aesthetic with a clear picture.