There are plenty of psycho-stalker, maniacal-killer, and mass-murderer movies out there, but when you put that lunatic into a position of religious power it gets really unnerving. Pete Walker’s THE CONFESSIONAL has elements of a giallo and an early slasher, and yet as a whole it really doesn’t feel like either. The film kicks off with a young woman (FRIGHTMARE’s Kim Butcher), obviously upset, running from something. After shutting herself in her room, unable to handle the emotional distress, she hurls herself out the window. This scene never really becomes entirely clear, but it does tie in eventually, if loosely. The majority of the story, however, focuses on Jenny Welch, played by Susan Penhaligon (THE UNCANNY, PATRICK). Jenny enters a confessional specifically looking for Father Bernard Cutler (Norman Eshley), but instead finds herself taking the chance to get a few things off her chest since she is then stuck talking with Father Xavier Meldrum instead. Meldrum, played by a very creepy Anthony Sharp (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, DIE SCREAMING MARIANNE), becomes inexplicably obsessed with Jenny, and asks to see her again under the guise of wanting to help her with some issues. Before long his obsession turns violent and it becomes obvious that the priest has a much more dangerous set of emotional instabilities than most of the patrons he was meant to guide as a leader of the church.
There’s a tone to THE CONFESSIONAL that takes the heavy, dark feel of HOUSE OF WHIPCORD, combined with the character-driven slasher feel of FRIGHTMARE to provide intense atmosphere and characters that are entirely believable, even Meldrum. The story may not be groundbreaking, but the fact that this dangerously unstable man holds a position of great power in the church, and is able to use that to sway the perceptions of all around him, adds a layer of dread to this film that couldn’t be accomplished with the ‘normal’ homicidal stalker plot. We see Meldrum as a master manipulator, and that makes Jenny’s struggle for some sort of protection all the more realistic.
Meldrum’s live-in caretaker for his mother is played by the one and only Sheila Keith, a Pete Walker favorite (the harsh enforcer in HOUSE OF WHIPCORD and the cannibalistic Dorothy Yates in FRIGHTMARE). She adds yet another layer to the story, because throughout nearly the entire film, it’s extremely difficult to tell what her intentions are. Meldrum’s mother seems terrified of her, the Father himself is almost always displeased with her, and yet there’s a certain unnerving loyalty there.
The acting all-around is excellent. As previously mentioned, Anthony Sharp gives a particularly creepy performance, and backed by an equally unsettling performance by Sheila Keith the two really resonate the dark tone of THE CONFESSIONAL. Combine this with Penhaligon’s frantic search for someone that will believe her, plus highly capable supporting roles throughout, and you’ve got a textbook example of a horror movie carried by the characters.
There’s not a lot of negative here, only the warning that it is a slow, tense thriller and not a body-a-minute slasher. So as far as entertainment value goes, it is without a doubt capable of holding (even my) attention, but it’s not the party film that energizes the room. Effects and gore are certainly limited, but the story doesn’t really call for much, and what’s there is very well done.
For those who enjoyed earlier Walker efforts (or really any of his films), THE CONFESSIONAL is absolutely worth seeking out. I had a bit of trouble tracking it down, but it pays off. If nothing else, it will provide you with another reason to stay out of that confessional booth, after all you never really know who’s on the other side.