Brimstone and Treacle (1982) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Two thumbs up for specialty audiences as a creepy, effective,  strangely rewarding genre film.

Scoop's comments in white:

As a general rule, I've never found it entertaining when people just act weird, or when movies wear their weirdness as a badge of honor. It requires a special kind of daring to make that kind of posturing into an appealing art. Andy Kaufman had the elan to pull it off, but Tom Green usually does not.

I guess I must have a weak spot for Dennis Potter, the official British weird guy, because I always seem willing to give him more artistic leeway than I would give a dilettante like Tom Green who uses weirdness for cheap laughs, or a heavy-handed playwright like Harold Pinter who uses weirdness as a substitute for character development. The fact that Potter rarely repeated himself in any way, that he was always out there adding some new oddball credentials to his resume, gave him a lot more appeal than Pinter and Green whose careers seem to consist of recycling the same ideas and devices again and again. Potter, like Andy Kaufman, was fucked-up, but was wildly inventive, and I like that.

If you aren't familiar with Potter, he's the guy who created The Singing Detective (both versions), Pennies from Heaven, and Dreamchild (the story of the little girl who was Lewis Carroll's model for Alice in Wonderland). In theory, I should hate all of those works, and Brimstone and Treacle as well, but I don't. I think Potter has just enough panache to pull "weird" off.

The story here is macabre, morbid, and not a little bit demented.

Sting, the ersatz Malcolm McDowell, plays some kind of an evil drifter who insinuates his way into people's homes with clever cons and sweet words (the treacle), and then creates hellish nightmares for them (the brimstone). Is he an evil man? Is he Satan?

Oh, who the hell ever knows that kind of thing in a Potter script? Robert Downey was talking about The Singing Detective at Sundance last year, and after he answered one question, he cracked the audience up when he said to the questioner, "you seem to know what was going on in this film. Can you explain it to me, because I can't make any sense of the fuckin' thing." He wasn't the only one. The audience felt about the same way, but I liked that film as well, in defiance of all my own predispositions.

Actually, we know Sting can't be Satan in this film because of something that happens at the very end of the movie, but if he isn't Ol' Scratch, he certainly is surrounded with enough religious and mystical trappings for ten dark angels, five Santeria priestesses, and a few spare vampires.

The Stinger works his way into the lives of a suburban couple who have lost their daughter to an automobile accident. No, the daughter isn't dead, but she is lost nonetheless, transformed into some kind of vegetable that lies down all day and makes strange noises and gestures, obviously the victim of horrible brain damage. As time goes on, we see that the daughter's condition is directly related to something her father did. On the surface, her father is a good man and a respectable publisher of solemn, religious material, but this facade hides a kind of wormy decadence. The great British character actor Denholm Elliott was perfect for this compassionate-yet-seedy role. Come to think of it, he always plays compassionate-yet-seedy. Sting earns the trust of the despondent, unhappy couple, then uses that trust to weasel his way into being alone with the brain-damaged girl, for whom he has planned various obscene and blasphemous activities which you can well imagine.

The thing that impressed me most with the script is that scriptwriter Dennis Potter figured out a way to get out of this inescapable situation gracefully. I mean where do you go after you have a trusted houseguest fucking the brain-damaged daughter on camera, with the father about to enter the room? After that vile scene, Potter came up with two resourceful plot twists that manage to leave the viewer feeling that everyone got pretty much what was coming to them, yet he pulled that sleight-of-hand off without any unnecessary cruelty or violence.


Suzanna Hamilton shows her breasts and pubes.

Sting shows his bum.

DVD info from Amazon

Nice widescreen transfer, but not anamorphic. It's about 1.66:1, letterboxed.

Potter wrote this as a four character stage play, and that's still basically what it is. It was originally filmed in 1976 for BBC, but the network chickened out and the original TV version (also starring Denholm Elliott) was never aired. Given the passage of six years and a theatrical release which freed him to seek his true audience, Potter tried it yet again, and at least this time he managed to get the story told and shown exactly as he pictured it, including many lingering shots of the smarmy Sting doting over the brain-damaged girl with lascivious looks and caresses. Director Richard Loncraine managed to bring the same kind of perverse, dark and dissolute feeling to this film as he did to Michael Palin's The Missionary and Ian McKellan's Richard III.

Sting's band, The Police, accentuated the mood with a creepy score.


Brimstone & Treacle (1982) stars Sting as a young con man who ingratiates himself into people's lives, and then does real mischief before moving on to the next victim. It really isn't clear what his motivations are, and, in point of fact, he actually causes good things for two of the three people in the household we observe him in.

I also enjoyed this film very much. I thought the entire cast was excellent, and was not as shocked by what Sting does to Patricia as some reviewers claim to be, because it was announced at the start of the film that Sting was not a good guy, and his plans for Patricia (Suzanna Hamilton) were telegraphed well in advance. The ending was very clever, leaving lots of questions, but was satisfying at the same time.

This is an enthusiastic thumbs up from me. This is my kind of offbeat film, so it was no great surprise that I enjoyed it.

The Critics Vote

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The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, Scoop says, "this film obviously can't be more than a C+ by our rating system. Maybe it is less - arguably a C. Don't go to this film with your parents or your very religious and/or straight-arrow neighbors. You can tell from the description that it is weird, and even if you can handle weird, you may find it utterly offensive. But what can I tell you? I kinda liked it. It was like a blasphemous, obscene, and generally nasty episode of The Twilight Zone, and it's only about 80 minutes long between the credits, so it doesn't overstay its welcome." Tuna says, "Your mileage may vary, but it is a C+, very well done for those like me who enjoy the genre."

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