Color, 1978, 95m. / Directed by Anthony Page / Starring Richard Burton, Dominic Guard / Classic Reel (US R1 NTSC)

The late Anthony Shaffer was a master of puzzle plots, ranging from the drawing room gamesmanship of Sleuth to the pagan shenanigans of The Wicker Man. Made five years after those films but not released widely until Richard Burton's death ten years later, Absolution forms something of a trilogy with those other two films, mixing wry black humor with unexpected, blood-freezing terror where you least expect it.

Riding in whistling on a motorcycle, a roving Scottish man named Blakey (stand-up comic Billy Connolly) sets up his tent in the woods outside a remote Catholic boys' school. Meanwhile the students are preparing a comical stage production, much to the displeasure of domineering Father Goddard (Burton). One of the more mischeivous students, Benjamin (Picnic at Hanging Rock's Dominic Guard), becomes fast pals with Blakey, with Goddard's pet pupil, the limping Arthur (Dai Bradley), begging to go along for the decadent ride. Goddard is infuriated by Benjamin' growing corruption, but matters get even worse when the boy slips into the confession booth and tells Goddard that he has murdered Blakey, burying the body in the woods. Sealed by the oath of confession, the priest himself goes alone to the woods and finds himself the butt of a vicious prank. But then Benjamin returns to the confessional again, saying that this time he really has committed a murder...

Laced with an eerie folk score by Stanley Myers and an appropriately broody, gothic setting, Absolution is the sort of film that would really appeal to horror and thriller fans if they knew what it was really about; unfortunately the whiplash plot reversals of the second half prevent a more thorough summary. Bear in mind, however, that the story climaxes with a truly shocking moment of gore, plenty of Burton hamminess, and a deliciously sick twist ending, and it's easy to see why the arthouse crowd went dashing for the exits. Shaffer brilliantly manipulates the viewer's sympathies, which shifts from one character to another with sometimes alarming frequency. (This would make a terrific double feature with The House that Screamed, which pulls the same trick and has no compunction about bumping off its characters.) Continuing the tense subtext of religion versus sexuality from The Wicker Man, Shaffer makes Goddard an even more repressed, emotionally tangled protagonist than that film's Sergeant Howie; Burton's well-calibrated performance uses silence to great effect, and when Goddard first appears with eyes flaring at schoolboys preparing for an opera in drag, you know this isn't going to be a pleasant ride.

Shot open matte with TV-safe compositions by the competent but unremarkable Anthony Page, Absolution first appeared on VHS and laserdisc courtesy of TransWorld. That transfer wasn't any great shakes, and the film now screams out for an updated presentation. Unfortunately you won't get that with this DVD, which is essentially similar to the laserdisc but inexplicably features more washed out colors. Darker scenes also tend to clog up rather badly, with blocky artifacting often in evidence. It's watchable overall but far from impressive, befitting its bargain bin status. However, the film itself is more than worth the effort of tracking it down, and until a decent licensor gives this the treatment it deserves, the disc earns a spin for the quality of the title, not the product itself. The front cover inexplicably boasts this is based on a true story, which seems highly unlikely to say the least.

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