Sunday, October 05, 2014

HOLY HORRORS FOR HALLOWEEN FILM FESTIVAL II: BRIMSTONE & TREACLE

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…

Brimstone & Treacle

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

11 comments:

Xena Catolica said...

You dissed "Dune"?!?!? Sting in "Dune"? Um, maybe we didn't read the same book, but it's not like that part actually required acting. Other than Patrick Stewart being perfectly cast with a major stick up his butt, almost none of those parts required acting.

Rocket Scientist said...

My thought exactly.

EegahInc said...

Ladies, ladies, ladies. A couple of points if I may.

1) I own every album by The Police, but I never had a Sting poster on my wall. Oiled-up Sting in a speedo sways me in no way whatsoever.

2) More important, two months ago I would not have said anything negative about David Lynch's Dune. But I recently watched the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune which covers the details of the first effort to bring Dune to the big screen. Before funding was pulled, Orson Wells, Gloria Swanson, Mick Jagger, David Carradine, and Salvadore Dali had all been cast. Salvadore Dali! In Dune! Geiger was the art director. Pink Floyd was going to do the soundtrack. Dan O'Bannon was co-writing it. It goes on and on. Ever since I saw the doc, I can now only feel disappointment in what we got and weep for the Dune that might have been.

Xena Catolica said...

Who said anything about the Speedo scene? For the record, one Police album and zero posters. Blond men might as well be Big Bird on my libido chart, since you bring it up.

If Jodorowski's version had a script that needed acting, he departed from the book. And while I kinda see the appeal of Orson Welles as the Baron Harkkonen, I think my point still stands---few of the parts require acting, because few of the characters make a difficult decision on stage.

FWIW, I think an ambitious, art movie like Jodorowski's would have been much more suited to the second or third book.

EegahInc said...

I'm kidding about the speedo, of course. My readers are far too smart to let an actor's looks affect whether they enjoy something or not. (Except for maybe Darryl on The Walking Dead. A lot of the ladies really seem to like Darryl.)

I just thought Sting was a weird choice to play what was supposed to be a pre-pubescent character. They even had him written to act like a child. The odd thing is, Jodorowsky had signed on Mick Jagger to play Feyd. Must be something about rock stars. I guess a lot of people see them as stunted growth man-children.

And full disclosure, I only read the first Dune book. I just didn't get into it for some reason. Maybe I should revisit it sometime.

Oh, speaking of books, I have already finished the first two New Sun novels and am well into the third. You were right, they're much more compelling than Moby Dick. I'm going too fast, though, so I'll probably have to reread them to catch everything.

Xena Catolica said...

You didn't miss a thing in the sequels to "Dune." I couldn't finish "God Emperor of Dune," back when I finished everything. Ihat's why they'd need an artsy director to do anything with them.

Glad to hear you're reading New Sun!

Cari Donaldson said...

Never read Dune. My husband's family watches the movie, however, every! single! year! post-Thanksgiving dinner. I love Sting. Loved his oiled up blue speedo. Had the Police posters on my wall. But that performance couldn't hold a candle to my adolescent heart to Sting's performance in The Bride. Tortured, wounded, possibly insane genius? Swoon.
I always wanted to watch Brimstone and Treacle when I was in high school, but none of the video stores in my suburban town carried it. Now it's probably too late. Sting doesn't hold the same appeal now as he did a much younger Cari.

Daryl on The Walking Dead, however...

Rocket Scientist said...

Who are Police? I'm sure I'm showing my age.

EegahInc said...

Ah, The Bride! Too this day, anytime I get together for drinks with my old high school friends, someone inevitably says to the waitress, "Another pint! And another pail!"

Rocket, you're bound to remember the song "Every Breath You Take." It was pretty inescapable for about a year. That was The Police, Sting was their lead singer/songwriter. I attended high school from 1980 to 1984 and I can assure you, there was a small cult of teenage girls who adored Sting and watched Dune for no other reason than him.

MissJean said...

The Book of the New Sun? Are you crazy?!?! Severian makes Martin look like a celibate choirboy. Really, he walked around shirtless, hitting every woman except... well, I was going to say "except his grandma" but you know...

I never watched Dune. Read the book long ago. Preferred Andrea Norton.

EegahInc said...

Hey, Spoilers! I'm only half way through Book 3. I also keep forgetting everyone is mostly naked in the series, so thanks for reminding me of that. Now my entire mental picture of Severian has changed to reflect David Carradine in The Warrior and the Sorceress.