Color, 1972, 92 mins. 14 secs.
Directed by Robert Hartford-Davis
Starring Ann Todd, Patrick Magee, Tony Beckley, Madeleine Hinde, Suzanna Leigh, Percy Herbert
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), 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, Beware My Brethren (more widely known on home video as The Fiend) 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. This particular film was directed by one of the lesser known exploitation directors of the era, Robert Hartford-Davis, who helmed everything from Gonks Go Beat and the interesting Gothic horror film The Black Torment to the wonderfully sordid Corruption. Though no one has made a case for him as a neglected auteur, his down and dirty 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 featuring 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.
Brethren 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 mostly 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 shorter, 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 on DVD by Image as The Fiend under the Redemption label (now long 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 was better than the very poor Image disc, and the restoration of the missing footage (especially a rough bit in a swimming pool) 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.
In 2018, Vinegar Syndrome took its own stab at the film with a Blu-ray and DVD dual format release as part of its Black Friday sale featuring a limited (1,500-unit) edition slipcover. This is by far the most satisfying presentation of the film out there, fully uncut and featuring vastly superior image quality with richer colors, more image info on the sides, and deeper blacks. The DTS-HD MA English 1.0 track is also more robust than before, and optional English SDH subtitles are provided. The theatrical trailer is included along with a side-by-side comparison of the two markedly different versions (5m49s), but the big new extra here is an audio commentary by Diabolique's Samm Deighan. She really tackles this from a religious horror angle, something that runs through quite a bit of British horror and ties in with themes of repression and sadomasochism. She's perceptive and a great joy to listen to as always, bringing in threads from British true crime and a number of other films (ranging from Peeping Tom to The Lodger) while building appreciation for a title that remains strangely overlooked.
VINEGAR SYNDROME (Blu-ray)
Updated review on November 14, 2018