This week over at Aleteia, I reviewed “Annabelle,” a surprisingly Catholic friendly horror movie. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not perfect, but it gets a lot (not all) of the religious stuff right. Now, even though “Annabelle” deals with demonic infestation, watching it reminded me of our Holy Horrors for Halloween film festival from a couple of years back. That’s where we offered some suggestions for a few good (or at least watchable) religious themed genre movies that avoid the standard trappings of exorcism and miserable priests on the verge of losing their faith, movies like The Wicker Man, Bless The Child, & The Believers. Well, we’re certainly not ones around these parts to let a free blog post idea go to waste, so this year we’re doing it again. First up is…
“The arrival of a mysterious stranger disrupts the lives of the members of a British family in this dark, psychological thriller. The stranger is one Martin Taylor (Sting), a dangerous charmer who ingratiates himself with the Bateses, a dignified, older couple (Denholm Elliott and Joan Plowright). The couple becomes especially fond of Martin after he demonstrates a strong, caring rapport with their daughter, a disabled invalid. It is only when he has become a part of the household, unofficially serving as the daughter's caretaker, that Martin's true, potentially demonic nature begins to show itself. Based on a script by Dennis Potter, the creator of the brilliant British television miniseries Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective, the film layers its already charged situation with hints of the supernatural, aspiring to be both disturbing family drama and provocatively ambiguous morality play. Some moments of MTV-like stylization threaten to diminish the mood of slow suspense and unhealthy obsession, but Potter's distinctly warped sensibility and the solid performances generally carry the film over its rough patches.” ~ rovi’s AllMovie Guide
“There is no God. There is no hope for Patty. There are no such things as miracles. (bad dad Tom Bates)”
“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ (Psalms 14:1, NABRE)”
Sting! Dr. Stinglehoffer! The McStingster! Stingatolla! Sting! Stinga linga ding dong…dong… Sting! Let’s face it. Sting’s movie career has been spotty at best. Just when you watch “Quadrophenia” and think to yourself, you know, that Sumner boy ain’t too bad, someone pops in “Dune” and you pray to God he never acts again.
Fortunately, the role of Martin in “Brimstone & Treacle” seems tailor made for Sting. Well, him or a young Malcolm McDowell whom Sting is obviously aping, but still, he’s excellent in the role. After the opening credits scroll to a rousing chorus of “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” we first encounter Martin as he emerges from a cathedral surrounded by ecstatic choirboys. That means he’s one of the good guys, right? Well, maybe not, as just a few moments later he covers his ears in pain as the church bells toll. Get used to this dichotomy as, for the rest of the film, it’s kept very vague as to who or what Martin really is.
Martin wanders the city looking for someone to con, eventually singling out Tom Bates, an atheist who owns and operates a religious greeting card company. Bates lost his faith after his daughter Patricia was struck by a truck and left incommunicative and possibly brain damaged. Of course, as the movie quickly reveals, the only reason Patricia was in the middle of the street in the first place was because she was blindly running from her father’s office after walking in on him having an affair with his secretary. Mr. Bates is not a pleasant man.
That’s probably why it’s so easy for Martin to ingratiate himself with Mrs. Bates, who has spent her every waking moment since the accident either tending to Patricia’s needs or catering to Tom’s thankless demands. It only takes a day for Martin to bend Mrs. Bates’ (yes, her name is Norma) to his will, convincing the beleaguered wife to take the afternoon off and leave Patricia in his care. Unfortunately, once Norma is out of the house, Martin wastes no time in molesting the girl. As Patricia is unable to communicate with anyone, this crime goes undetected, allowing Martin to ingratiate himself further into the household. Even Mr. Bates eventually crumbles to Martin’s charms, joining the lad and Norma in a rousing hymn.
(Necessary spoilers ahead.) It all ends suddenly later that evening as Martin attempts to rape Patricia while her parents sleep. Roused from the confines of her own mind, Patricia begins to scream, alerting her parents. Mr. Bates manages to drive Martin from the house, but to his dismay, finds that his daughter has recovered her memories and capacity to speak. As Martin runs off into the night, Patricia reveals her father’s indiscretions to a stunned Mrs. Bates. Tom will surely face repercussions for his sins. Meanwhile, Martin makes his way back to town and begins looking for his next victim. But in a strange twist, the man Martin chooses turns the tables on him and begins to drag him back towards the church, explaining that the bishop has been crying his eyes out since Martin disappeared.
Like the rest of the movie, the ending is ambiguous. While it’s possible that Martin might just be a sociopathic con artist, there are also hints that he is a supernatural being of some sort, possibly a demon. There is the aforementioned scene in which church bells cause him pain, as well as his efforts to avoid the painting of Jesus which hangs in the Bates’ home. The supernatural element is most apparent in the scene in which Martin leads Mrs. Bates in a histrionic prayer over Patricia (the devil knows his scripture, after all). Thunder rolls and lightning flashes inside the house, yet it remains sunny and calm outside. The thing is, regardless of Martin’s origins, he ultimately brings Patricia out of her mindless state and exposes Mr. Bates sins to the world. Is it possible, “Brimstone & Treacle” asks us to consider, for good to come from evil?
The answer is yes, in a way. The Catechism explains to us that “in time we can discover that God in his almighty providence can bring a good from the consequences of an evil, even a moral evil, caused by his creatures: ‘It was not you’, said Joseph to his brothers, ‘who sent me here, but God… You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive.’ From the greatest moral evil ever committed - the rejection and murder of God's only Son, caused by the sins of all men - God, by his grace that ‘abounded all the more’, brought the greatest of goods: the glorification of Christ and our redemption. But for all that, evil never becomes a good.”
In other words, we humans can’t intentionally try to bring about good by committing an evil. That’s still a sin. But God can take our sinful actions and bring good from them. We see that at work in “Brimstone & Treacle.” Whatever Martin is, his actions are evil, but by the grace of God, what results from them is good. Including a sometimes uncomfortable, but ultimately watchable movie.