John Bruni reviews Brimestone And Treacle

Brimestone And Treacle 85 min., 1987
Written by Dennis Potter
Directed by Barry Davis
Language: English
My rating: ★★★★

A vicious old bugger!

Once upon a time, comic book writer Alan Moore created, for DC, a hard-smoking, hard-drinking, sardonic blue-collar mage by the name of John Constantine. In an interview, he confessed that the character was heavily influenced by Sting. Yes, THAT Sting. The guy who was in the Police. OK, early illustrations of Constantine resembled Sting, sure. But the attitude? Take a look at his music. Take a look at his role in DUNE. That’s not John Constantine. But! Take a look at BRIMSTONE AND TREACLE. Suddenly, Sting’s inner-Constantine starts to emerge, and Moore’s statement makes a lot more sense.

Here, Sting plays Martin Taylor—if that’s his real name—a conman and drifter in the streets of London. He’s got a wonderful little scam to cover for when he picks a stranger’s pocket, but he ups his game considerably when he meets Tom Bates, played by Denholm Elliott in perhaps his greatest role.

Martin pretends to know Tom, which is a scam we already saw a few minutes ago. In fact, as he learns more about Tom during this very brief conversation, he becomes bolder. He claims to be a friend of Tom’s daughter Patty. However, things take a dark turn when Tom tells him that Patty’s been in an accident and hasn’t been able to leave bed for years.

Martin recognizes an opportunity when he sees one. He pretends to be grief-stricken, so badly that he can’t even stand up. Tom shows some concern and offers to give Martin a ride. His auto’s just around the corner, after all. He’ll drive around and pick Martin up. Martin, gleeful that one of his scams is working out, prepares to milk Tom for all he’s worth.

Unfortunately for him, Tom’s a bit of a cunt. He’s sussed out Martin’s game, and he’s simply gone back to his car and is on his way home, happy to have thwarted a scoundrel. To give you an idea of how bad Tom is, in a later scene he stops for a hitchhiker, but before the young lass can get in his car, he speeds off, calling her a slut. Oh yeah. Too bad for him that Martin already picked his pocket and now has his wallet and address.

We get to learn more about Tom’s home life with Norma, his wife, and poor Patty. Tom works as a writer of sappy poetry for religious tracts, but ever since Patty’s accident, he’s lost faith in God. At one point, he calls the Lord “a vicious old bugger!” He buries himself in work so he doesn’t have to go home and see the gibbering, empty ruin of his daughter. Norma, on the other hand, is stuck at home because they can’t afford to pay someone to take care of their daughter. It’s driving Norma crazy. She loves her daughter, but it’s been a long time since she’s been able to do anything for herself. While this accident has left Tom a broken man, Norma tries to remain strong for her family. However, when she’s alone, she weeps.

She would probably weep more if she knew how the accident happened. A few years ago, Patty went to her father’s office only to discover him fucking his secretary on the floor. Patty ran away from this horrible scene—and believe me, you DON’T want to see Denholm Elliott with his pants down in such a fashion—and into the street, where a bus runs her over.

That’s some pretty dark shit, no? Well, strap in. It’s about to get darker.

Enter Martin Taylor. He’s come by Tom’s place under the pretense of delivering the wallet to him. Without the money inside, of course. Martin’s got such a set on him that he asks Tom if he had any money in there. When Tom says he had 80 pounds in there and then discovers it’s gone, Martin only says at least the thief didn’t take the credit cards.

But Martin’s a creep. Before he approaches the house, he spends some time in the middle of the night using the swing set in their backyard. Then, he peeks through all the windows. There’s something otherworldly about his creepiness. When we first meet him, he’s coming out of a church, but when the bells start ringing, he shows an unreasonable aversion to them.

He knows Tom suspects him, so he doesn’t waste time working him. Instead, he works on Norma, and she falls for his charm hook, line, etc. Martin grows so bold that he claims that he was actually an old lover of Patty’s, that he’d once asked her to marry him. Before you know it, Norma is inviting Martin to stay with them, to help take care of Patty.

Norma takes full advantage of this by going out and getting her hair done the next day, leaving Martin to care for her daughter. It turns out that Patty’s a very beautiful young lady. It’s too bad that her mind has been reduced to a blithering mess. She can’t even swallow her own food.

Martin is, of course, an absolute bastard, and you can very easily see where this is headed. Oh yeah. Norma’s barely out of the driveway before Martin’s feeling Patty’s tits up, pulling her top open and sucking on her nipples.

The rest of the movie is spent thusly: Tom tries his best to get Martin out of their lives (at least until Martin impresses him with some bouef bourguingnon, that is). Norma tries her best to defend Martin, since she believes him to be a God-fearing, polite young man. Martin tries his best to fuck Patty in her hospital bed.

This is really a remarkable look at a dissolving family. They’re really on the ropes. A formerly religious family losing its grip on their beliefs, dragged down by the tragic results of one man’s infidelity. It’s a grim portrait, and everyone plays their roles well.

Yet Martin’s role in this is a bit of a gray area. On the surface, he’s a piece of shit who is taking advantage of these deeply damaged people. He wants to rape a brain damaged woman, for fuck’s sake! But that’s just the brimstone side; keep in mind, there’s the treacle side, too. In many ways, he’s bringing this family back together. In one scene, he actually acts as a marriage counselor to Tom and Norma, asking them to hold hands, don’t yell and share your grief.

And then there are the moments of his prayer. In one scene, he and Norma pray together over Patty’s babbling body. All of a sudden, a fierce thunderstorm tears the windows open and blasts through the living room as Martin shouts his prayers to the heavens. Yet outside, it is as calm as can be. What is going on here?

But never forget that Martin’s a bastard. He’s made such an impression on Tom that Tom has a nightmare which is possibly one of the most wonderful dream sequences ever shot. At first, it seems like Martin is really going through Patty’s bedroom, sniffing her panties, ripping her posters off the wall and jumping on her bed, but as things devolve into Tom’s mental muck, you can see just how crazy it is. Bits of dust and ruin snow all around the revolving shot of Patty’s room as Martin not only tears it to pieces, but also starts fucking Patty on the floor. And then, of course, there’s the constant refrain of Tom getting caught with his secretary.

Special mention should be brought to both Sting and Elliott here. Sting plays both brimstone and treacle very well. In one moment, you can see the lust in his eyes just boiling over as he grows bold enough to start stroking Patty’s legs while her parents are arguing in the next room. Yet in the next moment, he’s so tender you can almost buy Martin’s bullshit. For example, in one scene he rakes up leaves and piles them up to burn them in the yard. Then, he finds a dead sparrow in the mess, and in a split second, you can see he actually feels sad for the poor creature. But then he sees Norma approaching, and he forces tears out to take full advantage of the dead bird. It’s a wonderful thing to watch.

But Elliott has the harder job of the two. You see, every single person watching this film knows that Martin is full of shit. Everyone knows he’s the bad guy of this piece. Everyone knows that all the trash Tom talks about Martin is true. But at the same time, Tom comes off as such an asshole that you can’t help but cringe, even though you’re on his side. That’s a tough motherfucking job right there, and Elliott pulls it off perfectly.

There are a few flaws, though. For one, the religious imagery is overdone. Loncraine just can’t help but beat you over the head with the portrait of Jesus in Tom and Norma’s living room. He certainly throws in enough gratuitous scenes with it, complete with overpowering music. But that’s a minor quibble.

The real problem is the ending. It’s rushed, and Martin’s motivations aren’t very clear. We know that he’s been growing bolder and bolder with each moment, but he does something that’s so bold that it’s stupid. And then there’s the final scene of the film, which is too ridiculous to discuss.

Don’t let that dissuade you. Aside from that, this movie is incredible. You have to see it. It will turn your stomach and make your skin crawl. Sting and Elliott will fingercuff you into the most awkward experiences you could ever have in film.

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About John Bruni

John Bruni is the author of DONG OF FRANKENSTEIN (New Kink), POOR BASTARDS AND RICH FUCKS and TALES OF QUESTIONABLE TASTE (StrangeHouse) and STRIP (Riot Forge). His short work has appeared in anthologies like A HACKED-UP HOLIDAY MASSACRE (Pill Hill), ZOMBIE! ZOMBIE! BRAIN BANG! (StrangeHouse) and the critically acclaimed VILE THINGS (Comet). He edited STRANGE SEX 3 for StrangeHouse, and he was the editor and publisher of TABARD INN: TALES OF QUESTIONABLE TASTE. Find out more at www.talesofquestionabletaste.com and www.talesofunspeakabletaste.blogspot.com.
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