The Confessional begins mysteriously with the suicide of a troubled young woman. An abrupt cut to a Bible that lays open on her coffin sends the message that sinister religion is our topic of the day.
We next see a multitasking priest- that is, reading while driving- run into Jenny (Susan Penhaligon), an old friend who walks inattentively across the street. The priest, Bernard (Norman Eshley), winds up renting a room from Jenny and her sister, Vanessa (Stephanie Beacham). Jenny is struggling with her feelings following a breakup with her boyfriend, so she decides to give religion a shot. She visits a church and goes to confession, but she is disturbed by the personal nature of the priest's comments and runs out.
The good Father, played by Anthony Sharp, slips rapidly into desperate/obsessive mode, and the stalking begins. Jenny comes back from a cigarette run to find her male visitor severely injured. Her suspicions rise the next day, when she goes back to the church to get the keys she'd lost in her hurry to leave. She has to go through Father Meldrum to get her keys back, and he confronts her with the recording of her confession that he made for training purposes to improve our customer service. Or possibly for some more devious reason.
Bernard is acquainted with Father Meldrum, and a contrast is drawn between the two. Bernard is a young, idealistic priest with progressive ideas and common sense. He cares about people, has the knowledge of human nature necessary to be able to offer spiritual help, and supports the abolition of the celibacy requirement for priests. Meldrum is strict, harsh and repressed. He has not a thought in his head and is concerned only with maintaining the existing order.
This is a Pete Walker film. Guess which of the two comes out on top? Heh, heh. This may seem like a limited kind of scenario on which to base a film, but the movie has a number of interesting characters and a reasonable body count. The film's plot centers around Jenny, but she is largely unseen over the final third of the movie. Father Meldrum is the focus of the film's final act.
Meldrum is about as darkly drawn a character as one can find, priest or otherwise. We learn that his stalking and blackmailing activities are a pattern when Mrs. Davey alleges that his behavior triggered her daughter's suicide. And then there's the weird stuff.
Meldrum's assistant is the sinister, one-eyed Miss Brabazon, played by Sheila Keith, who attends to and abuses his elderly, bedridden mother. Body horror is added by Miss Brabazon's horrible eye and the age and infirmity of Mrs. Meldrum. This contributes a grotesque, exploitative sideshow element to the story.
We're dealing with a sexually repressed, self-righteous priest with mother issues, a violent streak and a sadistic, deformed conspirator. That's an awful lot of crazy to throw at the wall, and the story deepens from there. This is already an effective suspense film, and all these extra elements turn the plot into a house of cards. There's no question of whether it will collapse, the question is whether it will collapse disappointingly or spectacularly. As the Bible says, a good murder spree covers over a multitude of sins. Or was that a misquote?
Even with all of his evil actions and cuckoo behavior, Meldrum is a well-developed character and not a one-dimensional caricature. His motivations and backstory are revealed as the film goes on. The thing is that when we see what makes him tick, it's like peeling back a bandage to look at some gangrene or opening a shell to see the stinky, slimy, vulnerable snail inside. It's fascinating and revolting at once. Brabazon's eye gives a similar sensation.
There's a theme of major life change under the plot's surface. Jenny is on-again, off-again with her boyfriend. Bernard's future becomes unclear, and he considers taking a year away from the priesthood to reevaluate what he wants to do. Meldrum and Miss Brabazon are forced to confront thirty years' worth of missed life opportunities. Plus, Meldrum is setting fire to his bridges so fast that he barely has time to get across before they burn.
The film has a low-key, realistic look such as would be found in an episode of a well-produced British television mystery. Its style obviously owes a lot to Psycho and, perhaps more to the point, Peeping Tom. This movie clearly connects the post-Psycho shock films with the slasher era.
The Confessional is an early example of the "themed" murders often seen in slashers, in which the killer uses a weapon that is in some way appropriate to their backstory. There is often a humorous element to their weapon choice. Here, Father Meldrum uses Catholic ritual items as instruments of death.
Walker has said that he fully expected to be charged with blasphemy over this, but he escaped that kind of censure. However, the film for some reason got left off of the Catholic Church's list of recommended viewing. Yes, that's a real thing, and sooner or later we'll deal with it on this site, as it's a remarkably well-chosen list.
But it's flawed, as it doesn't include any of Walker's films. OK, maybe none of his movies really fit on a "75 best all-time" list, and the Catholic Church probably doesn't advocate nihilism, and we can't expect them to feed the hand that bit them. We'll cut them some slack - this time. There obviously is some anger directed at the church in this movie. Walker has said as much, but it's not the bash-fest that it might appear on the surface. Bernard's presence balances Meldrum's villainy and suggests that the church is a patient that can be cured rather than an Evil Institution that Must Be Destroyed.
The contrast between the two priests makes it clear that Meldrum is a rogue who acts indepently and is not part of some church-wide pattern of behavior. This is a moot point to Meldrum's victims, as his position allows him to operate freely without attracting suspicion. If any character does become suspicious, the others give the priest the benefit of the doubt and assume that the accuser is the real problem. And why not? Look what he gave up to be a priest! Who would suspect that he's now coming to get that to which he feels entitled...