“I have sinned, dear Father, I have sinned,
And I know what my punishment must be,
I have sinned with every breath and my punishment is Death…”
Some films make you happy and fill your heart with bright, colourful images. Others make you miserable and are full to the brim with grey-green-brown decaying bleakness. Then there are the third group, which make you happy because they’re miserable and full of bleakness, but do it in such a way that they completely capture the spirit of an era. The Fiend is one of them.
This is only to be expected, given its director’s penchant for juxtaposing “torn from yesterday’s headlines” sensationalism with black humour (see Saturday Night Out (1964) The Smashing Bird I used To Know (1968) and Incense For The Damned (1970) for further proof of this) and forays into the darker side of the human psyche. Given its specific subject matter, it’s also very much a “film of its time”, an era when crackpot religions, encouraged by the mass commercialisation of the Hippie dream, were coming out of the brickwork every five minutes and setting up home in suburban streets from Tucson to Teddington.
Peace and love had understandably given birth to ‘Jesus Music’ (Mr J Christ of Nazareth having been, of course, the earliest true hippie the general public were aware of) but for every bearded, bekaftanned flower-merchant there were a dozen of far more sinister import, such as the Children Of God (famous for abducting members of Fleetwood Mac, to say nothing of their somewhat dubious practice of sending young females out to ensnare male converts via “flirty fishing”), the Moonies, the Scientologists (whose leader L Ron Hubbard once admitted “if you want to make a lot of money, start your own religion”, yet even this didn’t deter intelligent people, such as Chick Corea and Mike Heron, from following him) and the cults of Father Yod/Ya Ho Wha, The Trees Community and the Christian Yoga Church, all of whom released albums now regarded as “psych collectors’ items”. Not to mention the slew of pulp paperbacks with titles such as “The Cross And The Switchblade” and “Double Zero” , most of which detailed the experiences of priests living among bikers and Angels, and seemed to “mysteriously” find their way into school libraries and common rooms throughout the 70s and 80s.
In short, God was big business if the right unscrupulous salesmen were there to promote him: Hartford Davis and his regular partners, scriptwriters Donald and Derek Ford, were only too aware of this, and by attempting to show what would happen if such a craze hit London (or at least the areas of it directly adjacent to Twickenham and Shepperton Studios), and cash in on the rather more real threat to women in the Hammersmith- Richmond area that existed at the time in the form of the still-unidentified “Jack The Stripper”, he hit on yet another magic formula guaranteed to rake the pounds in. Yet, via the wonderful laws of “default rather than design” that have blessed all the greatest Britsploitation titles, whilst still managing to make the sensationalist , shock-filled Grand Guignol picture he was aiming for, he somehow also delivered an intelligent, scathing social commentary, which works on several different levels and simply drips with atmosphere.
He also created, again probably by accident, the single most effective opening sequence these eyes have ever seen, as scenes of a feverish sermon conducted by the Minister (Patrick Magee)in the crumbling, sleazy house of ailing, diabetic, organ-playing divorcee Birdy Wemys (Ann Todd), in front of an assembled audience of miscreants and malcontents, are masterfully intercut with footage of a young blonde miniskirted girl being pursued, Thames-side, by an unseen assailant who ultimately strangles and drowns her as the Irish actor baptises a young convert. If this weren’t chillingly perfect enough, the lyrics quoted above are delivered by UK Northern Soul legend Maxine Barrie in a strangely beguiling and catchy gospel-rock number entitled “Wash Me In His Blood”, one of two occasions in the film in which Magee’s ritualistic services conclude in song. It’s moments like this that make you realise just what a marvellously cross-cultural experience the British horror film once was: so far we’ve had sex, religion, murder, interesting locations, arthouse photography, great Shakespearian thesps and a potential Wigan Casino classic, and the credits haven’t even rolled yet. Then, after they have, we’re immediately thrust into one of the most expertly-choreographed fight sequences ever seen onscreen, and set in one of “those” iconic boatyard-type-places you always used to see in Butchers’ films as well. Now that’s what I call film-making….
It’s not long before we realise what’s going on here- Birdy’s son Kenny (Tony Beckley) is a security guard by night, a swimming instructor by day, and in his spare time, distributes leaflets for the Brethren, the potty religious organisation set up in California (where else?) but represented in the UK by Magee, to which both he and his sexually repressed mother (who has turned the family home into a chapel) have both belonged since Dad buggered off with another woman sometime in the late 50s. With me so far? Oh, and another thing- when he gets the chance he murders young women, particularly prozzies or ones who look a bit “loose”, as they’re impure and need “saving”. Like you do. Or at least like you do if your mother is so scarred by her own cuckolding and in denial of her own misogynistic, suppressed lesbian tendencies that she has made you think that all sex is “dirty” and effectively emasculated you to the point that you can only achieve orgasm through murder- but it’s OK, because you’re “doing God’s work”.
I must point out, for the benefit of all the twats who flood websites like this with comments about “spoilers”, that it really isn’t revealing anything by giving away the killer’s identity in a review- the film is not a whodunit, and within about ten minutes it’s laid explicitly bare for you to see anyway, with Beckley listening to recordings of his slayings (nice Peeping Tom homage there, brought up to date via means of the latest state of the art reel-to-reel cassette recorder) while overdubbing them with speeches made by the American leader of his church. Plus, we also see him commit several murders as the film progresses. Instead, it derives its suspense from the ongoing dynamic between Beckley, Magee and Todd, with the latter having to keep her insulin intake a secret lest the manipulative clergyman “cast her out”, and his growing influence within the house (which he presumably doesn’t actually own and is therefore technically a squatter in) leading to much resentment.
Again, in a manner reminiscent of Michael Powell’s masterpiece (and also subsequently homaged by Rob Zombie in The Devil’s Rejects), The Fiend asks us to sympathise with the plight of someone who commits cold-blooded, sexualised murders and view them as just as human as the “good guys”, who in this instance are ace reporter Paddy (Suzannah Leigh) her cynical “what’s the silly cow gone and done now” style doctor boyfriend (Ronald Allen) and her doe-eyed sister (Hartford-Davis regular Madeline Hinde) who lands a job as a nurse at the Wemys’ home , presumably after the last one got freaked out and had enough, and can’t quite believe what she’s seeing. And here we have our plot, as Leigh, ever on the lookout for a searing expose, goes “undercover” into the church claiming to be a pregnant woman who has abandoned her wanton ways and wishes to give her life to Christ, thus creating a “race against time” situation whereby she has to find evidence of the Brethren’s wrongdoing before she’s either murdered by Beckley, beaten and cast out by Magee, carpet-munched by Todd, who has serious designs on the church’s latest recruit (“I anointed her, Kenny…and when I anointed her, she let me…”) or all three.
Interestingly, the thought that Mrs Wemys’s son could be the local murderer (even though he’s quite clearly a nutter- I mean, he still lives with his Mum in his 40s and has a cellar full of female underwear, fergodsakes) hasn’t even occurred to Paddy yet- she just wants to expose the church as the cynical, exploitative moneymaking enterprise it clearly is, and publicly decry its Draconian healthcare methods which allow elderly women to perish untreated (bloody hell, this could be the Coalition I’m describing here). When it suddenly dawns on her what the tape recordings in the cellar actually consist of, she finds herself in double deep water, and not of the kind she’d like to be baptised in either: to say the film concludes in a shockingly melodramatic fashion would be understating things somewhat.
Granted, it also leaves several strands untied, one involving the disappearance from the plot of a character (David Lodge’s wonderfully sardonic copper) that Hartford-Davis and the Fords clearly forgot about, thus giving us no choice but to assume Beckley is taken to task for his foul deeds, and ends on a (deliberately?) morally ambiguous note, but in terms of “Brit Grot” aesthetics, it’s peerless. The drab, drek-laden surroundings in which Kenny spends his days (the repressive church, the derelict riverside yards, the sterile, then-newly-built leisure centre), unprepossessing and bleak yet strangely all the more attractive and atmospheric for it, are so quintessential to the ethos of such works (see also I Start Counting, Night After Night After Night, Permissive, Separation, Goodbye Gemini, The Sorcerers, Straight On Till Morning, The Road Builder, Something To Hide, Revenge, All Coppers Are Bastards, Made, The Best Pair Of Legs In The Business, Sitting Target, Freelance, Give Us Tomorrow and Bloody Kids, or for that matter any Pete Walker film, for similar reference) that the viewer is compelled to search London looking for them: the attention to detail with which Hartford-Davis creates this world, particularly the church full of sad, desperate, lonely people looking like they’ve passed the point of no return, is in itself practically a lesson in the structuralist principles of grindhouse cinema. And there are still some who dare to say there’s no such thing as an auteur…
It also possesses strengths in which some of its peers, despite other attributes, are found wanting, and poses more questions you’d expect from your average “stalk and slash” picture. For example, is Kenny a bad person simply because of what his mother and minister’s intervention has done to him (the inference being that had he been brought up by his father and stepmother, it may not have happened and he may have been by that time a well-adjusted individual in a strong relationship) or were those factors merely catalysts to a dementia that already lurked dormant within? Is the serial killer natural or nurtured? There is every implication that, were she stronger, Birdy may have committed such murders herself- after all, is Paddy the only girl she’s found herself confronting her clandestine gay feelings towards, and if not, what became of the others? Her description of her son’s victims as “lonely people, with no-one to love them” seems to suggest that she too sees murder (or “baptism”, as Beckley refers to it when he strangles a beautiful brunette that tries to get him to go skinnydipping) as a suitable method of expressing affection and returning the soul to Christ. But for all his faults, Kenny is human: he bravely defends an assault from several lairy geezers with wooden poles at the start of the film, simply because as a nightwatchman, that’s his duty, and will do anything to ensure his mother receives proper medical attention and doesn’t die prematurely- what devoted son wouldn’t? The fact that he strangles women and hangs them on meathooks (as it goes, his methods of disposal are all a bit “public”, leading one to wonder if he secretly longs, like many serial killers, to be caught and recognised) is neither here nor there.
And when he murders the second swimming pool girl (ie the one he takes there, as opposed to the earlier one he meets there and chastises for her nudity, who in a classic Brit Horror dialogue moment, memorably refers to him as “some nutcase bloody bible thumper” before being informed “you’ll perish”) he’s genuinely contrite and remorseful, even caressing her clothes the day after and saying “I didn’t want to hurt you, you weren’t like the others”. It could also be something to do with the fact that she’s absolutely fucking stunning, the type any Mod worth his salt would crawl over broken glass for, but could a combination of empathy and the “right” girl, coupled with being “cast out” of the Brethren a lot earlier than he actually ends up being, have saved Kenny? It’s worth considering. There’s also a deeper, more implicit symbolism at work here. Namely, by practically abducting lonely people off the streets (albeit whilst still allowing them freedom of movement and living arrangements) and imposing their values upon them to the point where they are not even allowed medicine, is the Brethren itself not “killing” people in a more roundabout way- ie by robbing them of their soul, reason and ability to make independent decisions, while back in California a man grows fat off the profits? If so, Kenny is merely taking the more direct route.
Whilst known primarily as Camp Freddie in The Italian Job (Peter Collinson 1971) and familiar to genre fans as Curt, the even more pathetic, friendless serial killer in When A Stranger Calls (Fred Walton 1979) which was supposed to herald a new Hollywood career for him before his tragic death at the age of only 51, Beckley is superb here, giving what could be said to be the best performance of his entire career: likewise Magee, whilst his character is so irritating that you’re just waiting for him to get his come-uppance, is on top form, and Todd, one of the great “mad mothers” of horror (a role she was still reprising as late as the mid-80s with a memorable cameo in BBCTV’s Maelstrom) also delivers a showstopper. Leigh, who chainsmokes and drinks too much, is a nicely imperfect heroine, and Hinde (never the world’s greatest actress) is her usual ditsy, charming self, but sadly, if there’s one thing that lets the movie down- other than the fact that its grimy sensationalist nature, which is prevalent, stymies the recognition its subtler aspects deserve- it’s that the best-looking women are actually the victims, and therefore they get very little screen time.
It was also, as I’ve hinted earlier, clearly produced very quickly to ensure a rapid turnover, hence the disappearance of the delightfully “policular” Lodge from the proceedings, and also the inclusion of a red herring involving a commissionaire (Percy Herbert) with a penchant for being blown in his car by streetwalkers, which eventually leads nowhere. So in short, it’s not perfect. But if you want to show an “unbeliever”, as the Brethren would have it, exactly why British Horror and exploitation films made between 1945 and 1985 are so diverse and fascinating, particularly those lensed during Swinging London’s 66-74 heyday, then you could choose far worse examples than this, even if the existing Redemption DVD (released for some reason under its US appellation Beware My Brethren) is of somewhat patchy quality and is long overdue an upgrade with a less wanky cover. And it’s got a killer soundtrack too, which is going in the DJ set the minute I can find a bloody copy, even from a blogspot somewhere- “Wash Me In His Blood” “We Are One” and “Set Me Free” are necessary additions to any self-respecting retro anorak’s playlist. Never before or since have crackpot religious obsession, Oedipus complexes, beige Anaglypta and the restriction of sexual liberation sounded so good in a club setting.