Richard Loncraine’s “Brimstone and Treacle” had the potential to be an effective, haunting movie, but it never picks up from the beginning. Originally destined for TV, “Treacle” was supposed to be aired on BBC as part of the 'play-for-today' series. But it was banned before it could debut back in 1976 because of the disturbing content. Nearly half a decade later the film was made, bringing us to the 1982 version. While this one is marketable, it still deals with graphic material that I will mention further into my review.
Business-man Tom Bates (Denholm Elliot) is on his way home from work one day when he accidentally bumps into a mysterious young man named Martin Taylor (Sting). The polite Martin introduces himself and claims he once knew Tom’s daughter, Patricia (Suzanna Hamilton). When asked how she’s doing, Tom informs Martin that a recent accident rendered Patricia handicapped and completely dependent. Tom quickly bids farewell and leaves the scene.
But unfortunately for Tom, his run-in with Martin caused his wallet to fall from his pocket and into the hands of Martin, who soon visits the Bates now knowing the address. Tom’s wife is Norma (Joan Plowright), the kind and patient woman who cares for her daughter in every way. Since the accident, Patricia has been unable to do anything for herself, which includes eating, bathing, dressing, and basically living.
Tom is startled when Martin shows up that night because there is something very suspicious about him. He claims to be a friend of Patricia, and he even says he asked her to marry him once but did not get a decision. Tom doesn’t believe him, but Norma does. She’s a sweet woman, but so gullible she’d buy into any scam as she is clearly blinded by her generosity and kindness.
Martin wishes to stay and help care for Patricia. Tom immediately objects but Norma takes a liking to Martin’s charm and could use the help as she has not had a day off in years, since the tragic accident. Tom finally agrees to let Martin stay for one night, but expects him to leave by morning.
But Martin doesn’t leave. When Tom leaves for work, Martin convinces Norma to leave the house and enjoy the afternoon for herself while Martin looks after Patricia. At first Norma is hesitant, but finally decides to make an afternoon for herself; first stop the salon. Now Martin is in the home alone with Patricia, and his grin begins to widen.
There is no question that Martin is an evil character, and this may be the film’s biggest mistake because the film looses suspense when we already know a character is malicious. It is only a matter of time before Martin does something vile to the helpless Patricia. A harder task to accomplish, but would have worked had it been successful, would have been if Martin came off as a good guy before turning evil. That would have at least been an added surprise.
The movie goes nowhere. It is a tireless debate. Tom doesn’t want Martin in the home but Norma does. They each lay out their arguments while Martin sits in the living room looking at Patricia. This goes on for most of the movie, so when the action finally does pick up in the end, it feels rushed and lacking a conclusion. There is so much conversation that the suspense is killed.
The film is artistically made and Sting holds his own but he has no direction. “Brimstone and Treacle” could have been more of a thriller if the was less dialogue and less arguing amongst the Bates’. Martin’s final scene with Patricia is the reason why the series was banned from British TV, and it is indeed disturbing. But because the film doesn’t bother to tell us anything about Martin, he isn’t as scary as he should be. We don’t think Martin is a threatening character. If only we knew why he was in the house, why he had a sexual attraction to Patricia, or why he wanted to visit their house in the first place. Did Martin and Patricia once know each other? If so, what did Patricia do to Martin that angered him so? Now that is a premise for a good thriller.
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