Color, 1972, 88m.
Directed by Robert Hartford-Davis
Starring Ann Todd, Patrick Magee, Tony Beckley, Madeleine Hinde, Suzanna Leigh, Percy Herbert
Odeon (DVD) (UK R0 PAL), Image (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

One of the nastiest and most unsettling early '70s British thrillers, The Fiend (originally filmed as Beware My Brethren) springs from the same post-hippie wellspring of social unease and rocky censorship changes that gave birth to the better-known films of Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren. Of course, no one with an ounce of sanity would try to make a case for this film's director, Robert Hartford-Davis, as a great unacknowledged English auteur; after all, this is the same guy who directed Gonks Go Beat, The Black Torment, and the wonderfully sordid Corruption. That said, his down and dirty quickie approach works better than usual here thanks to a strong central concept mixing homicidal and religious mania as well as a much better cast than you'd ever expect for this kind of roughie material. Oh yeah, and did you know it's also sort of a rock-gospel musical, too?

The film's agenda is spelled out quite clearly in the unforgettable opening sequence which features a fanatical reverend (the always great Magee) berating his congregation over a baptism, intercut with a "woman of loose morals" being pursued, stripped, and strangled in a dark, filthy alley. The connection between the two is established in that the killer, a dysfunctional young security guard and part-time public pool monitor named Kenneth (When a Stranger Calls' Beckley), has an extremely gullible and religious mother (Scream of Fear's Todd) under the sway of Magee and his congregation, called the Brethren. Kenneth's confused psyche gets off on reliving his murders via tape recordings of the nasty deeds, and things get even more complicated when mom gets a new nurse (Lust for a Vampire's Leigh) who's actually an undercover reporter researching extreme cults.

The Fiend has taken a lot of heat from critics over the years (with a few barbs lobbed the by the cast itself, especially Leigh), but in hindsight it's a very effective psychothriller with some of the strongest lashings of sex and violence to be found in early '70s UK cinema. The actors all do a fine job in their roles, which makes the injections of nudity and violence even more jolting when they occur; the seedy but colorful visual scheme is also better than the impoverished budget would normally allow, and overall it's a modest but eye-opening little number that should have a bigger following than it currently enjoys.

Part of the problem with the film's reputation may have to do with its sorry theatrical and video history. The BBFC subjected it to a number of damaging cuts that toned down the sadism and nudity levels considerably; technically the revised version only runs about 90 seconds shortly, but much material was also replaced with substitute shots, particularly close-ups, to spackle over the editing holes. The full-strength version only popped up fleetingly on VHS from Monterey in a murky-looking transfer, and when an official version was released by Image under the Redemption label (now discontinued), it was the same old hacked-up theatrical version that had been seen on TV for years. An improved, complete version eventually popped up on the BBC, and after several years, the complete uncut version finally made its first official appearance on DVD courtesy of Odeon in 2011. As expected, the anamorphic transfer under the Beware My Brethren title looks pretty nice (albeit limited by the dated nature of the film) and definitely clearer and brighter than any others out there, and the restoration of the missing footage (especially a brutal bit of business involving a flashlight and one victim's mouth) gives the film a much stronger punch. The PAL running time is 88 minutes, which comes out to about 91 in NTSC; for some reason a few sources list running times of up to 98 minutes, but this appears to be erroneous. Extras include some very informative liner notes by Steve Chibnall, a stills gallery, the original theatrical trailer, and bonus trailers for other Odeon titles like Blood on Satan's Claw, Die Screaming Marianne, Frightmare, The Asphyx, and Virgin Witch.