By Lois Kennedy
Director: Richard Loncraine
Cast: Sting, Joan Plowright, Denholm Elliott, Suzanna Hamilton
Martin is a sly con artist who insinuates himself into peoples’ lives and causes mischief. His current target is the Bates family: father Tom, mother Norma, and adult daughter Patricia, who was in an accident and has lost most of her mental and physical faculties. By claiming he was once a suitor of Patricia’s, he talks his way into staying at the Bates house; Norma is trusting and wants to believe him, while Tom is more cynical, but Martin manages to charm both of them. And his intentions towards Patricia are less than gentlemanly.
Sting does a decent job as the malevolent Martin. He’s good at being smug and smarmy at the same time; his performance is very reminiscent of Malcolm McDowell in ‘A Clockwork Orange’. The other actors are good as well. Joan Plowright is sweet and naive as Norma, and Denholm Elliott is convincingly bitter and and angry as Tom. Suzanna Hamilton has a bit of a tough role as Patricia, but she does an appreciable job playing someone who for the most part can only wail and flail her arms.
The movie has heavy religious overtones. Tom struggles with losing his faith in the face of the crushing disappointment and frustration he feels about Patricia’s accident (which makes his career as a Christian greeting card writer ironic). Given that Martin is equated with Satan in a couple of scenes and because he’s so sneaky and corrupt, some theorists believe that Martin is the Devil in disguise. I wouldn’t go that far, but that would raise some interesting points about how evil is actually mundane rather than flamboyant and conspicuous.
The pacing is quite slow. Martin comes across as a mischievous scamp (like when upon meeting Tom he pretends to pass out and then asks him for a piggyback ride) until about halfway through the movie. The story was interesting enough to keep my attention, but I was hardly riveted. Also, it’s nowhere near scary at any point. For me, the most striking scene is when Tom has a hazy and beautifully shot and totally 1980s dream sequence.
‘Brimstone and Treacle’ was under my radar until I came across it in a book about underrated horror movies, and overall I have no regrets. I had trouble interpreting it (for example a scene when Martin sneaks into Norma’s room and puts on her makeup for no discernible reason), and I don’t think I completely understand it, but it was interesting trying. It’s a bit hard to find (God bless the public library), but I found it worth the search. Check it out if you’re in the mood for something thoughtful and challenging.