Robert Hartford-Davis trained as a film technician at MGM Studios, and then later gained a degree at the University of California while in Hollywood. He had spent almost twenty years becoming skilled behind the scenes in the film industry by the time he found his first big break with Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger’s Compton-Cameo outfit. This was the duo’s initial foray into fully fledged low budget film production in the 1960s, after the previous success of their Soho Private Members’ Cinema club had pushed them first towards film distribution, and eventually into providing their own self-produced material to accommodate the tastes of their ‘select’ Soho clientele, first with George Harrison Marks’ “Naked - As Nature Intended” (one of the first beach-ball nudie features made in Britain) and then with such sexploitation-posing-as-morality-tale fare as “The Yellow Teddybears”.
The latter was produced and directed by Hartford-Davis after he’d already proved himself an able producer to Tenser and Klinger on previous Compton projects “That Kind of Girl” and “The Pleasure Girls” (directed by Gerry O’Hara). “Saturday Night Out” was another producer-director vehicle for the budding forty-year-old filmmaker, but after a bad experience on the stodgy Hammer-style period piece “The Black Torment”, Hartford-Davis set up Titan Productions with former Compton cameraman Peter Newbrook and set sail in the increasingly exploitation-mired waters of the British film industry at the end of the sixties, producing the spectacularly over-wrought shocker “Corruption” (in which Peter Cushing plays a homicidal surgeon who beheads a prostitute in a seedy Soho bedsit) and the ill-fated car crash that was “Incense for the Damned”. The crudely spliced-together results of that endeavour ended his nascent partnership with Newbrook and led to him calling on some of his former film actor contacts to add some much needed clout to his next self-financed exploitation shocker -- the infamous “The Fiend” (which goes by its US title “Beware My Brethren” in the print used for this uncut DVD presentation).
Suzanna Leigh had been given her first break back in Compton’s Hartford-Davis produced “The Pleasure Girls” and had since found Hollywood fame in Elvis Presley’s “Paradise, Hawaiian Style”; but she was now evidently drifting back into the orbit of the moribund British film Industry after having just appeared in Hammer’s “Lust for a Vampire” the previous year. Joining her in an august cast list which the director managed somehow to assemble for this hurriedly shot project, was Tony Beckley (who was simultaneously shooting “Get Carter” in Newcastle), the always dependable Patrick Magee and Ann Todd, the veteran former wife of director David Lean: all of whom imbue this curious exploitation horror curio from the early seventies with a misleadingly respectable air that Hartford-Davis then goes all out to contaminate with an increasingly eccentric directorial style based on alternating the long, lumbering stage-bound scenes of Brian Comport’s screenplay with a jittery editing technique that delights in cutting quickly back and forth between the jubilant, ecstatic evangelical worship of a small suburban religious sect, presided over by Magee’s unnamed dog-collared minister, and the graphic, sexually motivated murders being committed at the same time by the grown up son (played by Beckley) of the cult’s church organist, Birdy Wemys (played by Ann Todd).
Like Pete Walker’s “House of Mortal Sin”, the theme here is religious hypocrisy and the dangers of sexual repression played out in grimy, naturalistic suburban settings; even more so than in Walker’s later efforts, the film delights in having it both ways: pruriently lingering on a succession of nubile dolly birds being groped and mauled by the mixed-up mummy’s boy killer (scripted as a hysterically over-the-top combination of twitches and quirks derived from Norman Bates and the Mark Lewis character from Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom”), while condemning the sex-hating puritanical oratory of Magee’s po-faced minister -- who has inveigled his way into the deranged mind of Ann Todd’s diabetic and semi-traumatised Birdy -- as being the ultimate cause of such disgraceful activity.
The confused woman has devoted her life to the Minister’s muddled fundamentalist preachings, even going to the unlikely extremes of allowing him to set up a makeshift chapel in her faded-looking Victorian era house, where an eclectic band of misfits congregate to worship each evening and listen to an incongruous mixture of Magee’s mad rantings and Birdy’s Christian Rock-influenced musical theatre pop tunes -- performed in front of a giant, bright red crucifix emblazoned with ‘JESUS SAVES’.
As Chris Chibnall points out in the DVD sleeve notes, “Jesus Christ Superstar” was a big hit at the time, and Hartford-Davis evidently thought it would make the film a bit more saleable if he included a number of Gospel-tinged pop melodies on the soundtrack, despite the clear anti-Christian tone of the film! The film opens with a Shirley Bassey lookalike miming to a joyous sounding paean to the love of Jesus (Birdy seems able to conjure a full rock band sound from her antiquated old organ, complete with funky wah-wah peddled guitar licks!), while the misfit congregation bop and sway in the gloomy-looking church pews (there’s even a deranged-looking jiving toddler down in the front stall who looks like she’s on something!). Hartford-Davis then intercuts shots of a small boy being baptised in an inflatable paddling pool with fetishistic images of Beckley in a Nazi-like patrolman’s uniform stripping and drowning a prostitute beneath Hammersmith Bridge – all ironically with the same melodious, hand-clappy music tootling away the whole time on the soundtrack. This is the first of the film’s preponderance of sequences that sets out to explicitly associate evangelical religious fervour with sexual deviancy.
Beckley plays Kenny Wemys: a middle-aged swimming instructor at a local baths by day and black-garbed uniformed security guard and serial killer by night, who uses his position of authority to punish those women he believes to be promiscuous strumpets by violently stripping, strangling them and stealing their underwear as mementos to keeps at home: bras and knickers are to be found hanging in his basement den beneath Magee’s chapel, accompanied by the library of tape recordings of his victims’ final death throes, and his Goya etchings. He lives with his mother, who obviously knows what he’s up to, but dotes on and does everything possible to protect him anyway, while he sits downstairs in the gloom listening back to the recorded deaths of his female victims on cassette tape or tapping his truncheon (!)
Birdy is herself a seething cauldron of pent-up sexual frustration, and it is made more than clear -- with the aid of a disturbingly suggestive flashback to the young naked Kenny being tenderly washed as a toddler by his mother, rapidly juxtaposed with shots of him murdering a naked teenager in the swimming baths where he works after closing time (after first meeting her outside a cinema screening a double bill of “Scars of Dracula” and “The Horror of Frankenstein”) -- that there has been incestuous contact between the two of them during Kenny’s childhood which has turned her into a religious fanatic (probably in a sublimated attempt to re-channel her urges and to supress the self-knowledge of her actions), and him into a psychopathic murderer who associates overt female sexuality exclusively with the corruption of his own innocence.
Birdy is constantly quizzing Ken on the extent of his day to day contact with women: at first we assume it’s because she suspects his double life as a Jack The Stripper-style sex killer; but eventually we realise that there is a more incestuous reason for her desire to control his contact with younger females -- one she herself doesn’t even want to confront. Her hypocrisy is further compounded by the fact that the Minister’s preachings expressly prohibit the taking of medicine, but since she is a diabetic who is secretly dependent on insulin, this rule is knowingly being broken every day. Birdy’s supressed sexual proclivities also extend to latent lesbianism, which becomes apparent after Suzanna Leigh’s ambitious local journalist goes undercover at Magee’s chapel (ostensibly as a lost soul seeking spiritual solace, while actually intending an exposé of the cult-like activities of his sect) and is lovingly caressed and ‘touched’ -- after a cleansing bath -- by the apparently over-maternal, killer-harbouring organist, in an echo of Birdy’s past behaviour towards her infant son.
The clear sexploitation values that are marked out by the glaringly prurient depiction of the film’s string of sex murders -- which are always shot for maximum titillating effect -- rather undercuts the pious anti-religion message: topless dolly birds seem to assail the nervously beleaguered Kenny wherever he goes, who, as a swimming instructor, really is in the wrong job if he can’t bear the thought of frolicking, scanty-clad nubile female bodies without going into a sweaty, boggle-eyed killing frenzy every time he catches sight of a jiggling cleavage – even when he’s not explicitly breaking into their houses and spying on them in the shower. Hartford-Davis and Comport cram more sex in by lingering on the greying naked flesh of the killer’s throttled victims, which are shown variously floating forlornly in the Thames, tumbling out of a cement mixer, or left hanging on a hook in a butcher’s lock-up freezer.
The energetic editing displayed in the scenes of Kenny’s girl-hunting and the gleefully shot sex crimes somewhat flounders in the midst of a series of very long stagy sequences in which the triumvirate of Kenny, the Minister and Birdy are given great, tedious slabs of dialogue to get through in the gloomy house-cum-chapel. Thankfully, all three performers are good enough to make something out of their sketchily written roles, despite Kenny existing in a bubble in which he seems never to interact with anyone apart from his perspective victims and his mother (there’s one scene near the beginning when he meets a police officer, who is then never shown again), and the Minister appearing to be a somewhat dour, Edgar Allan Poe lookalike who lacks the necessary charisma to draw such devotion from his (admittedly small) band of followers. Hartford-Davis does manage to make a few key scenes work well though; one particular moment stands out, where a cornered Suzanna Leigh is trapped in Kenny’s basement lair and looks up at an ornamental crucifix framed in the foreground of the screen as the camera shifts focus. Just as we think she is about to undergo some desperate last minute conversion in her hour of need, she reaches for it and begins to use the heavy object to smash the lock on the door instead.
“The Fiend” has had a chequered past at the hands of the BBFC, who requested just over a minute of cuts which have blighted every DVD version since then. The BBC once accidently showed an uncut print of the film on TV which has since become the Holy Grail for fans of this prime slab of ‘70s Brit horror-sleaze. Now Odeon Entertainment have made all our dreams come true: all previous cuts have indeed been waived, and this solid, colourful print features the complete uncut version of the film on DVD for the first time -- now with restored shots of glorious naked sleaze not seen for decades. Praise the Lord, indeed!
The disc is released as part of Odeon’s Best of British Horror catalogue and features a host of trailers for other titles in the collection, as well as a theatrical trailer and a stills gallery for “The Fiend” itself. Steve Chibnall, Professor of British cinema at De Montford University, provides excellent background and interesting comment on this, one of the sleaziest but better-made efforts from the low budget independent sector that took up the slack after the Americans pulled out of the British film Industry at the end of the sixties. Now fully restored and with an excellent print, “The Fiend” is another essential addition to the British Horror fan’s collection.