❉ Andrew Screen reviews 88 Films’ release of 1972 British horror starring Patrick Magee and Tony Beckley.
“In some ways Brethren is a companion piece or extension to the bleak yet crude Corruption… The film is as equally interesting as any of Pete Walker’s kitchen sink horror and could have easily have been directed by him. In some ways it is a forerunner to Walker’s output such as The House of Mortal Sin…”
Most British horror aficionados are aware of the work of Peter Walker or Norman J Warren. Lesser known is the output of Robert Hartford-Davis (1923-1977) who had entered the industry with the brisk quota quickie crime thriller Crosstrap (1962) and progressed on to the exploitation number The Yellow Teddy Bears (1963). The title refers to bear pin badges worn by the pupils at a girl’s boarding school to show they have lost their virginity and, despite the subject matter, this was a perils of pregnancy melodrama with little on screen one on one action. This didn’t stop distributors in American retitling the film the less than subtle Gutter Girls.
His first flirtation with fear came with the Gothic horror The Black Torment (1964) written by Donald and Derek Ford who had also scripted The Yellow Teddy Bears. The same year Hartford-Davis helmed the frankly bonkers science fiction flavoured pop musical Gonks Go Beat (1964) which saw Kenneth Connor as an alien sent to Earth to broker peace between Ballad Isle and Beat Land. A veritable smorgasbord of British character actors populated his next production, the Michael Bentine scripted and starring comedy The Sandwich Man (1966), but it was with his following film that Hartford-Davis truly made a mark on the British horror scene.
Armed once again with a script by the Ford brothers he enlisted Peter Cushing to star in the quite astounding Corruption (1968), which riffed on the plot of Eyes Without a Face (1960), as a plastic surgeon who goes on a killing spree in order to extract pituitary glands to restore the beauty of his disfigured wife. After the prototype ‘women in prison’ frolics of School for Unclaimed Girls (AKA The Smashing Bird I Used To Know) (1969) Hartford-Davis returned to the horror genre with Incense For The Damned (1971). With Peter Cushing in tow once more for a quick cameo, this was a devil worshipping film with a hint of vampirism set mainly in Cyprus. The film had a troubled production history and was released unfinished which resulted in Hartford-Davies removing his name from the credits.
In 1972 Hartford-Davis had three films released. The now considered lost Nobody Ordered Love (1972) starred Ingrid Pitt in a tale of behind the scenes trouble during the making of a war movie and the Blaxploitation mafia versus militants number Black Gunn (1972) shot in America. Sandwiched somewhere in between was Beware My Brethren (AKA The Fiend) (1972) which had actually lensed in 1970 under the title Mummy Wouldn’t Like It before being picked up for distribution a few years later.
The 1970s was when British horror films became earthier and grottier reacting against the Gothic and fantasy motifs perpetuated by Hammer and Brethren leads the way in scuzziness and sleaze. The opening scene cross cuts between a prayer meeting led by Patrick Magee in a typically rabid performance with the stalking and murder of a young girl. It is a startling opening gambit which the rest of the movie never quite ascends to. Tony Beckley plays Kenny, a sympathetic monster, who not only works two jobs (security guard and swimming pool lifeguard) but also still lives with his elderly, devoutly religious mother. He is also a serial killer of young women.
Beckley excels in the role having had form playing a psychopath in the fellow British grot classic Assault (1971). He would finish his career before his untimely death as the killer in When A Stranger Calls (1979). Ann Todd, who rose to fame with The Seventh Veil (1945) and had once been married to David Lean, appears as Beckley’s sickly mother Birdy who is under the spell of Magee’s unnamed minister character. Critic Jonathan Rigby noted that the film was “memorable for the spectacle of genteel veteran Ann Todd hemmed in on all sides by 1970s sleaze.” (English Gothic by Jonathan Rigby, Reynolds and Hearn, 2000, page 201).
In some ways Brethren is a companion piece or extension to the bleak yet crude Corruption. Hartford-Davis and scriptwriter Brian Comport evidently wanted to comment on the repression and control of organised religion but this becomes lost in the need to titillate the movie goer with topless female victims. This lessens the impact and tension of the story. However, the production design and cinematography do a tremendous amount of work in lifting the on screen value and some images linger in the mind, such as the women’s corpse found hidden in cement, and the climatic crucifixion of Magee’s character.
The film has recently been released on Blu-ray by 88 Films with a splendid transfer which does not suffer from over-saturation and has a consistently pleasing grain. Extras are plentiful. The first of two commentary tracks comes from Troy Howarth, and Patrick Magee impressions aside, he provides a wide ranging, chatty track that covers actor’s biographies, production history and themes within the film. Howarth doesn’t pause for breath and he can have a tendency to digress too much into the history of other productions of the period that share actors or crew. One thing that Troy and I both agree on is that Brethren is Hartford-Davis’ best film within his horror credits.
The second audio commentary, by critic Samm Deighan, is ported over from a previous American Vinegar Syndrome release. It’s a more paced and laid back addition compared to the other chat track with Deighan disassembling the themes underpinning the production. Of the two tracks I prefer this one as you have time to digest what is being discussed instead of being buried by an avalanche of facts and trivia.
Also included is a booklet with two essays about the film. Jon Dear’s The Fiend and the Flesh examines some the possible inspirations for the film in real life cases of crime and religious cults. Andrew Graves’ UK Grime Scene attempts to contextualise Brethren’s place in the world of 1970s British horror. The always erudite Flipside maestro Vic Pratt contributes an excellent video overview on Hartford-Davis’ career and the film itself in the One Moment in Time (23 minutes). Film historian Melanie Williams offers a pleasing overview of Ann Todd’s career in the A Woman on A Mission (17 minutes). An original cinema trailer and a comparison of the UK cinema and uncut international versions of the film round up the extras.
The film is as equally interesting as any of Pete Walker’s kitchen sink horror and could have easily have been directed by him. In some ways it is a forerunner to Walker’s output such as The House of Mortal Sin as it covering some of the same ground. Brethren also echoes motifs from Michael Powell’s classic Peeping Tom (1959) with Beckley collecting audio recordings (as opposed to film recordings) of his victim’s deaths. Sadly, whilst the film strives for greatness it never quite achieves it despite a bat shit crazy finale, and at the end of the day can only be considered a minor classic of sleazy British horror.
❉ 2K Remaster from the Original Negative
❉ HD Transfer in 1.85:1 Aspect Ratio
❉ High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) Presentation
❉ 2.0 LPCM Stereo
❉ Optional English SDH
❉ Audio Commentary With Critic Samm Deighan
❉ Audio Commentary With Author Troy Howarth
❉ One Moment In Time – Vic Pratt On The Fiend
❉ A Woman On A Mission – Ann Todd And The Fiend
❉ Version Comparison
❉ Original Trailer
❉ Reversible Sleeve
❉ Includes First Pressing Matte Laminate Slipcase With New Artwork By Simon Pritchard
❉ Includes Booklet, Writing By Andrew Graves & Jon Dear
❉ ‘Beware My Brethren’ (aka ‘The Fiend’) was released on Blu-ray, 25 July 2022 by 88 Films (88FB498). Run time: 86 mins approx. BBFC Cert 12. RRP £14.99. Click here to order: https://amzn.to/3JBsXhf
❉ Andrew Screen writes on things film and television by night and by day is a SEN practitioner with thirty years’ experience. He has written for Action TV and was editor of the magazine’s website for several years. His work has been published in Creeping Flesh Volume 1 and 2 (Headpress), The Sapphire and Steel Omnibus (Pencil Tip Publishing) as well as Horrified Magazine. His guide to Nigel Kneale’s Beasts is forthcoming from Headpress in 2023. Twitter: @aneercs