A confession at a Catholic School turns to a real murder mystery! In confession, a student tells Father Goddard (Richard Burton) that he has accidentally murdered his friend and buried him in the forest, when Goddard investigates the matter, all he finds is a scarecrow buried in the woods. Goddard is outraged, but, due to the seal of confession, he cannot punish the kid and have him expelled. Shortly after, the boy once again enters the confession booth, telling Godard that the previous confession was a practical joke, but, this time, he's really gone and done it. (From Kino’s original synopsis)
As stated in my review of Alfred Sole’s Alice Sweet Alice (1976), I am a non-religious person who is more fascinated by the drama and horror that coincides with deep religious belief, than I am with the drama and horrors tied to religious mythology. Catholicism, above every other major world religion, has informed popular horror in Europe and the Americas. A wide array of films, like William Friedkin’s classic The Exorcist (1973), Rupert Wainwright’s Stigmata (1999), Francis Lawrence’s Constantine (based on the Hellblazer comics, 2005), are heavily anchored in the Catholic tradition. Even ‘80s slasher star Freddy Kruger was reportedly the son of a nun who was raped by one thousand maniacs. The majority of these films portray supernatural and apocalyptic terrors of Catholic mythology, from misquoting Revelations (usually based on post-Biblical mythology, like the Seven Deadly Sins and elements of Dante’s Divine Comedy) to demonic possession and other Satanic influences on the natural world. But there are also a collection of films based around the horrors of being Catholic. Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (Italian: Non Si Sevizia un Paperino, 1972), and the aforementioned Alice, Sweet Alice (aka: Communion and Holy Terror) don’t threaten non-believers with the fire and brimstone – they expose us to the reality of excruciating guilt, as well as the existential and emotional damage fervent dogma can instill.
Anthony Page’s Absolution (the 1978 movie, not to be confused with the 2015 Steven Seagal movie) explores the rules of the priesthood and the limits of belief in the context of a murder mystery. Unlike Don’t Torture a Duckling and Alice, Sweet Alice, Page’s film doesn’t rack up a bodycount or stage elaborate murder set-pieces to establish gloom, suspense and horror. Yes, bloody murder and villainy is afoot, but the real terror is confined to Father Goddard’s mind and soul (besides the moral quandaries of taking confession from murderers, it is strongly hinted that he is battling homosexual urges). This melodramatic and exaggerated tone is anchored by Richard Burton’s burdened and unhinged lead performance, which is relatable enough (despite his constant cruelty during the first act) to sell the conceptual dread to a non-believer, such as myself. Even the less unfledged performances (including a young Billy Connolly in his feature debut) surrounding him are made better by his contrastingly sober portrayal. Page himself dials back on flashiness in his direction to give the actors and story room to breathe. Fortunately, he has a long history of disturbing and depressing boarding school movies to build upon. He takes non-horror inspiration from the likes of Anthony Asquith’s The Browning Version (1951) and Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1969), while also treating the boarding school like a gothic castle – as if the building itself is a sinister player in the plot*.
Absolution has a particularly strong cast, competent direction, and was produced by Elliott Kastner (who also made Where Eagles Dare, Villain, and Equus with Richard Burton), but its greatest strength – by a long shot – is Anthony Shaffer’s screenplay. Shaffer was originally a novelist and playwright by trade who wrote Absolution to be a stage play under the title [i]Play With A Gypsy[/i], hence its stagey tone. He is most famous among film-fans for his intricately plotted and conceptually compelling work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972), Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ Sleuth (1972), and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). Absolution’s story isn’t the first thriller to play with the conventions of the confessional, of course (Hitchcock’s I Confess, 1953, is probably the prime example of a priest’s duty putting him in an ethically impossible situation), but, like The Wicker Man and Sleuth, it hides a deviously clever twist beneath fantastic character interactions and deliciously convoluted plotting. Unlike Sleuth and in Page’s defense, I’m not sure if this particular story could’ve been told as effectively on stage. There are too many locational necessities (as in there are too many different sets and outdoor settings) and the deliberate pacing, which builds slowly to the shattering climax, seems to require the ‘stings’ offered by John Victor-Smith’s editing, John Coquillon’s cinematography, and Stanley Myers’ score. Absolution isn’t perfect, but is still vastly underrated and, unlike a number of other ‘underrated’ films, it didn’t even have the benefit of a real theatrical release, let alone a decent following on home video.
* For whatever reason, scary schools tend to be a girls-only tradition, as seen in Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and Phenomena (1985), Luck McKee’s The Woods (2006), Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s The House That Screamed (Spanish: La residencia, 1969), and a legion of Korean and Japanese horror movies.
Absolution popped up on American R1 DVD via grey market, budget labels, like Cheezy Flicks and Mill Creek Entertainment. As far as I know, they were all sourced from the same 1.33:1 VHS source. The better option for fans of the film was an anamorphic, R2 German DVD from Euro Video. Kino’s Blu-ray (and the coinciding DVD) debut is the first ‘real’ North American availability since the VHS days and this 2K remastered, 1.85:1,1080p release marks a massive picture upgrade to boot. Textures are incredibly sharp, especially the big close-ups, and the semi-fuzzy quality of some wide-angle shots appear to be the result of difficult shooting situations on outdoor locations. For the most part, even the scenes photographed in the great outdoors display complex patterns and edges are consistently tight without enhancement effects. There is some minor print damage throughout – mostly vertical lines and small white flecks – but grain structure appears pretty accurate and consistent to me. The one strike against the transfer is that the gamma is cranked too high, which creates crush in the blacks and blooming in the whites. The high contrast works beautifully for the more evocative shots, but definitely hurts the clarity in some situations. Fortunately, the colour quality remains solid throughout, a few pasty complexions aside.
The original mono soundtrack is presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. There is a slight over-crisp quality to the quieter sequences and there are occasional pops between sequences (as if someone is changing a record), but the general sound quality is clean and warm. Dialogue is mostly natural, aside from some reverb during outdoor sequences and the ambience, though often clearly added in post (birds chirping, for example), fits tonally without overwhelming the performances. Stanley Myers’ music is used sparingly to strong effect. While the main theme plays against expectations with Irish/Scottish-infused banjo twiddling, which is done in reference to the songs that Billy Connolly plays, Myers also offers up the type of intense symphonic bite one would expect from a slightly hammy thriller.
Unfortunately, the only extras are trailers for Absolution, Fred Walton’s The Rosary Murders (a sort of cop thriller version of the same concept, 1987), and Ulu Grosbard’s True Confessions (1981).
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Full-sized .jpg versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab.