Anthony Shaffer was one of the most celebrated English playwrights in the 70’s (between Frenzy, The Wicker Man and Sleuth) which is why his decision to write Absolution, a wickedly surreptitious horror film set in a Catholic school might seem incongruous from an outsider’s point-of-view.
For his role as a repressed priest, Richard Burton is terrifically rigid and sclerotic. When his students are misbehaving in class during teaching of the catechism, he winces and grimaces. Even when he is behind closed doors with his brightest pupil, Benjamin (Dominic Guard), he can barely muster a smirk.
It appears as though Burton is anguished to be in the film and it translates well to Father Goddard’s repulsion to indulge in Earthly pleasures. With all the mental abuse that Goddard unleashes on his underlings, it’s only a matter of time before his Old Testament churlishness will incur a comeuppance.
The film itself is a jigsaw puzzle that unfolds at a deliberate pace with Goddard’s paranoia slowly exacerbated before he pulls a fire alarm for a headcount. What begins as a gruesome prank quickly hypertrophies into a crisis-of-faith for Goddard. In an early appearance, Billy Connolly is Blakely, a charlatan drifter who seduces the youngsters with his off-kilter, ne’er-do-well carelessness.
The final curtain call for the killer is plentifully limpid due to Roger Ebert’s economy-of-characters precept but it also has a nihilistic, jaundiced inevitability to it when Goddard is confronted in the chapel. Until the whirlwind final act, director Anthony Page exclusively demarcates the terror to a pathological level. Then he swerves to a quite graphic impaling with a shovel that would be more apposite if Sean S. Cunningham was a guest helmsman. The gore stands out from the mind-bending conclusion.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5