Sunday, 25 April 2010

I tremble at the loss

‘The Fiend’ (1971) is not a particularly uplifting film. In fact, it’s murky, sleazy, and misogynistic, just like the man who directed it, our old mucker Robert Hartford-Davis.

The film tells the story of Kenny, heroic security guard by day, colossal pervert and murderer of fleshy seventies women by night. Kenny and his beloved Mum are both in the thrall of an evangelical religious cult called The Brethren who specialise in singing groovy gospel songs and listening to crazy Patrick Magee ranting about sacrifice as as he baptises new converts in a large yellow plastic paddling pool.

Kenny’s modus operandi is to randomly pick a woman, stalk her for a bit, then brutally kill her and steal her underwear.
He tape records the murders and mixes them with recordings of Magee’s sermons, creating an unsavoury avant garde mash up that would probably only fill the dance floor at the Broadmoor Xmas Disco.

The net is tightening around Kenny, however, as his Mum’s home help (Madeleine Hinde, seemingly in all Hartford-Davis films) and her journalist sister (Suzanna Leigh, an incredibly irritating actress whose biggest role was opposite Elvis in ‘Paradise, Hawaiian Style) are on his trail. They won’t like what they find, and they may not quite understand it, as the ending is rather a muddle.

One of the last films Hartford-Davis made in the UK before moving to Hollywood (!), ‘The Fiend’ is not badly done, but the underlying tone is quite unpleasant and the storyline drawn out and unnecessarily confused. Tony Beckley gives a typically Beckley-esque performance as Mummy’s boy Kenny: arrogant, sarcastic, but deeply neurotic and odd (Tony played Camp Freddie in ‘The Italian Job’ and turned in decent character performances in a number of films before dying of cancer in his early fifties: this was his only starring role). Crazy Patrick Magee is always good value, and Ann Todd (Kenny's Mum), a forties starlet who had been married to David Lean, looks ill at ease and ready to retire (again).

One of the high points of the whole undertaking is the soundtrack, which is great. The funky pop gospel songs sung by The Brethren are absolutely brilliant with their rubbery bass lines, choppy guitar and electric organ, ensemble vocals from a gospel choir and strong lead vocals from Maxine Barrie, a talented singer who looked and sounded too much like Shirley Bassey to be successful in her right and, ironically, ended up as Britain’s best known Shirley Bassey impersonator.

‘The Fiend’ is supposedly due to be released on DVD soon, but there is no definite date as yet, which is almost as irritating as Suzanna Leigh. In the meantime, here's a clip that features murder, funky gospel, an ersatz Shirley Bassey and a large yellow plastic paddling pool.


Reimer said...

Mr Beckley IIRC was also excellently creepy as the looney-botanist baddy in 'Dr Who and the Seeds of Doom' where Tom Baker takes on a huge, shuffling, voracious self-propelled alien plant in and around a remote stately home that UNIT probably had its base in a few years previously.

Maxine Barrie...nice voice. Odd to have these 'musical' interludes in slasher/horror films (see also 'Wicker Man') seen from the distance of today - links them more to the Pop-culture kitsch of the late 50s/early 60s than to 'Halloween 36' et al.

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