BRITISH CULT CLASSICS - The Fiend / DVD Review

Odeon Entertainment continues to unearth some further examples of obscure British cinema with their DVD release this week of Robert Hartford-Davis's The Fiend (AKA Beware My Brethren) which Jonathan Rigby describes as a "spectacularly tawdry psycho-thriller" in his exemplary English Gothic.

Rigby is not far wrong. And yet, The Fiend is peculiarly compulsive viewing.

Hartford-Davis is probably best known for scripting Gerry O'Hara's directorial debut of 1963 That Kind of Girl and directing the pale Hammer imitation that was The Black Torment (1964) for Compton Films. He was also responsible for a rather nasty serial killer shocker Corruption (1968) starring Peter Cushing. The latter was made under the Titan Productions partnership with cinematographer Peter Newbrook. By 1972 and Hartford's work on The Fiend, the partnership had dissolved and Newbrook had already gone on to make The Asphyx.

What makes The Fiend so lurid is that it embraces both the serial-killer formula that was coming to prominence in the horror film genre in the early 1970s and reflects the perceived 'permissiveness' that the era was criticised for. It certainly follows in the footsteps of Peeping Tom (1960) and shares similarities to 10 Rillington Place (1971) while prefiguring the Pete Walker combination of horror and sexploitation that can be found in Frightmare (1974) and the similarly religious themed House of Mortal Sin (1975). Like much of Hartford-Davis's work on Corruption, this film is also a decidedly crude, if not completely bizarre, affair.


Essentially, the film explores the mother and son relationship of Birdy and Kenneth Wemys. Birdy (played by veteran Ann Todd) is an aged diabetic, mainly confined to her bed, and her son Kenneth (Tony Beckley) is by day a swimming pool attendant and by night a leather booted security guard.

A truly odd 'marriage' between spinster and sexually frustrated offspring that is dominated by their adherence to an evangelical religious group called the Brethren and overseen by the fire and brimstone Minister (Patrick Magee). Unbeknownst to mother, Kenny is a tortured figure who believes that murdering young women who flaunt their bodies and make themselves sexually available will redeem them and save their souls.
... the film turns into... a musical
The film opens in spectacular if strange style. The Brethren meet in a converted chapel within the Wemys gloomy house and as the Minister rails against the corruption of modern life and prepares to baptise a young boy into their religious crusade, Hartford intercuts this fervour with a chase sequence featuring a busty blonde in a tight yellow top running hell for leather from some unseen assailant down a series of dark alleys.


As the blonde stumbles into a churchyard there is a swell of gospel tinged organ, a distinctly funk driven guitar passage and the film turns into... a musical. Birdy is on the church organ (one of the funnier moments in the film is watching Ann Todd miraculously produce all this music from this one instrument) and Maxine Barrie, later to become better known as a Shirley Bassey impersonator on Granada's first series of Stars In Their Eyes, belts out the first of the film's 'numbers', an enervating little ditty called 'Wash Me in His Blood.'

The lyrics "I have sinned, I have sinned and lord knows what my punishment will be" summarise the film's attempt to correlate evangelism with moral corruption as the blonde is graphically strangled by an unseen perpetrator and dropped in the river as the Minister plunges the young boy into the font and baptises him. 

Maxine gives us 'We Are One' later in the film as Kenny stalks a victim, Lucy, after giving her a lift from the swimming pool where he works. As he warns her she'll perish and that "the day of retribution is at hand" Hartford-Davis juxtaposes it with the song's ecstatic praise of universal love. Subtlety is not The Fiend's modus operandi.
'Third Nude Found'
Post titles, after a bit of a punch up by the riverside in which Kenny deters some breaking and entering villainy, the arrival of David Lodge's CID Inspector flags up the serial-killer's credentials for us. However, anyone astute enough to pay attention to the opening titles will easily put two and two together when they clap eyes on Tony Beckley's security guard costume, a Nazi uniform by any other name, and the leather jackboots that Hartford-Davis then insists on showing us as a tense prelude to Kenny creeping up the stairs to bring his mum a cup of tea. The relationship between mother and son is very close and through the obligatory flashbacks we learn that Birdy's husband abandoned her and her son thus fuelling the cloying Oedipal sub-text of the film.


The film introduces the two heroines - Brigitte and Paddy Lynch (Madeline Hinde and Suzannah Leigh respectively) - one an agency nurse about to visit Birdy Wemys and the other a chain-smoking, wise-cracking freelance journalist (love the 'Third Nude Found' headline on the copy of The Sun she brandishes) just before a scene showing Kenny polishing his truncheon. Yes, that's right. Hartford-Davis clearly loves his phallic symbols as he not only shows Kenny running a duster over his weapon of choice here but later, when Kenny attacks a Hammersmith prostitute after she has been servicing British stalwart character actor Percy Herbert, he rams a torch down her mouth as he beats her.

He also enjoys recording the death throes of his victims and, in a scene reminiscent of Peeping Tom, spends his free time in the cellar playing them back ("Two paahnds fer a playabaht in the back of der truck") in unison with the sermons of a mysterious American evangelist responsible for the Minister's crusade in the seedier spots of London. Hartford-Davis intercuts Kenny's revulsion at the begging voices of his victims with some quick shots of Goya prints depicting various bodily dismemberings that equates the murders of the prostitutes and Goya's realist burlesque with a religion that sees this as the work of the Lord in order to save us all. No wonder Kenny's eyes roll around in his head like two ping pong balls.

This all builds up the film's anti-religious demagoguery as Brigitte starts to become concerned about Birdy and Kenny and the hold that the Brethren have over them after she hears their 'leader' spouting a number of rules about doctors, blood transfusions and 'visiting places of entertainment' from the depths of the cellar. The grisly murders continue wherein various bodies are found hanging on meat hooks or plopping out of cement mixers and with the latter rather hilariously given a counterpoint in an immediate cut to Kenny scraping mud and cement off his jackboots.


Allegedly Hartford-Davis introduced these themes into The Fiend after being disturbed by reports that certain evangelical religions were forbidding their believers the use of medicines and blood transfusions. The film's major point, that the hyper-pious and puritanical use of religious ideology can indoctrinate the easily led and damage them, is hammered home from the start and to be honest it makes the mid-section of the film a somewhat tedious experience.

This evangelical theme is shown to have as much a damaging effect on society as the very permissiveness that Brian Comport's script often addresses. Comport was no stranger to material as odd as this with Freddie Francis's Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (1970) to his credit and later credits on The Asphyx and Pete Walker's Man of Violence (1974). Its distinctiveness from the generic British horror film fare of the 1970s is ironically marked by a brief scene where Kenny picks up another victim at a cinema showing a double bill of Hammer's weakest of Gothic romps Scars of Dracula and Horror of Frankenstein (both 1970).
... a very over the top action theme
Permissiveness is not only emphasised by the various tarts that populate the film but by some other equally subtle and equally left field moments. As well as Kenny's rant at a topless bather at the swimming pool there is a brief scene where he's in the pool's office on the phone to his mother and it is quite clear that the two men you can see through the window are cruising other men in the changing rooms. Later, Paddy joins the Brethren in an attempt to find material for her investigative articles. Her induction peculiarly awakens some lesbian tendencies in Birdy and, after running her hands over Paddy's lips, her desires (her "wicked ingratitude") are punished by the Minister's decision to deny her the insulin necessary to keep her alive, thus condemning her to death.


The film ends in a very overblown manner with an unhinged Kenny, driven even madder by the death of Birdy, nailing the Minister to the giant cross that hangs in the makeshift chapel. It's done with a mad frenzy of cutting between Kenny's assault of the Minister and Paddy's attempt to break out of the cellar by bashing a door in with a crucifix (like I said, subtle). This is scored with a very over the top action theme, something you'd hear in the likes of The Saint perhaps, and the juxtaposition of this with repeated zooms onto the giant cross and the religious rantings pouring out from the tapes in the cellar makes for a very energetic, rather demented, if inappropriately stylised conclusion.
... "expunge it from their CVs."
It's a conclusion that will likely leave you rather lost for words about a film that clearly has some messages to import about the period's conservative backlash but frames them within a hybrid of serial-killer sociopathy and something that often sounds like Jesus Christ Superstar. As Steve Chibnall points out in the excellent sleeve notes, the film emerged at a time when the likes of Mary Whitehouse and Malcolm Muggeridge had just organised the National Festival of Light and had, as Dominic Sandbrook notes in White Heat, set themselves up as "champions of moral conservatism and religious reaction" and as evangelists of a cause in which "they saw the Sixties not as years of liberation but as an age of anxiety."


Hartford clearly wanted to say something about repressive and conservative religion and The Fiend mixes this very bleak view with a salaciousness and brutality that also saw the film run into trouble with the censors when originally released on home video. This DVD version restores the cuts made. It's a film that will appeal to those who enjoy the, shall we say, stranger aspects of British cinema in the 1970s and certainly Tony Beckley (remembered best for 'Camp Freddie' in The Italian Job, Peter the Dutchman in Get Carter and as Harrison Chase in a memorable Doctor Who, The Seeds of Doom), Patrick Magee and Ann Todd come out of this with a certain amount of their respect intact despite many of the cast desperately attempting to, as Chibnall suggests, "expunge it from their CVs."

As well as Steve Chibnall's liner notes the DVD also contains a photo gallery with some great lobby cards from the period. You'll also find trailers for many of the films mentioned in this article. The film has been restored and the picture and sound quality are very good indeed.

The Fiend
World Arts Media 1972
Released 7 March 2011 / Odeon Entertainment ODNF162 / 1.78: Anamorphic / Region 2 / Mono / 88 mins


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