Director: Piers Haggard
By Roderick Heath
Eerie, gritty, unpredictable, and brilliant in flashes, The Blood on Satan’s Claw is one of the best horror films of the ‘70s, and could have been even better. It’s a work that outdid Hammer Studios at their own game, presents a bridging point between ‘60s Gothic horror and the inversions of The Wicker Man (1973), as well as the darker body-centric horrors of the next few decades in the genre, and also develops on elements introduced to the British horror film by Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1969). Director Piers Haggard belongs to a category including Robin Hardy, John Hough, Hans Geissendoerfer, Jorge Grau, John Hancock, José Larraz, Alfred Sole, and other directors to take a sojourn into the horror cinema in the late ‘60s and ‘70s and suggest great talent but achieve only a ragged and stuttering subsequent career. In Haggard’s case, this meant later making the half-assed Jaws riff Venom (1981). The aesthetic control Haggard exercises over this film is nonetheless consistently striking, as he weaves a pungent atmosphere out of an interestingly naturalistic, freshly tactile depiction of a rural period England. The Blood on Satan’s Claw is, amongst other things, a classic example of the filmmaking of its era now much fetishized by genre fans, with a lustrous yet gamy physicality in the cinematography and unvarnished production style that seems unreproducible with today’s so-slick ways of shooting and editing films. Whilst there are rudimentary makeup effects, shot through with a pungent sense of realism and reckoning, the malefic is communicated almost entirely through behaviour and environment.
At the outset, young yeoman farmer, Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews), turns up strange gnarled remains of something that’s neither human nor animal in the line of his plough. He tries to alert the most important local personages, his employer Mistress Isobel Banham (Avice Landone), and her friend, and long-ago suitor, the Judge (Patrick Wymark), but when the Judge inspects the furrow, the creature has vanished, and the magistrate dismisses Ralph’s story. That night, Isobel’s nephew Peter Edmonton (Simon Williams) brings home the girl he intends to elope with, Rosalind Barton (Tamara Ustinov), much to the Mistress’s indignation, and she stows Rosalind away to sleep in an attic room. During the night, Rosalind hears something stirring under the floorboards, and then the household is awoken by her hysterical screams. When Peter, Isobel, and the Judge break down the attic door, she attacks Isobel and scratches her face in a mad frenzy, and the men hurriedly nail the door shut until she can be hauled away in the morning to a Bedlam: as she’s bustled out, she smiles evilly at Peter, who notices that she’s growing claws from one of her hands. A trio of local adolescents, including Ralph’s lady love Cathy Vespers (Wendy Padbury) and her friend Angel Blake (Linda Hayden), inspect the furrow, and Angel retrieves a similar claw.
Soon Angel’s passing this relic about amongst her fellows in the Sunday School class run by the local clergyman, Reverend Fallowfield (Anthony Ainley), and an insidious influence begins to spread amongst the people of the small hamlet, as sundry inhabitants are stricken with pains that prove to be patches of grotesque alien skin and fur growing like tumours upon their bodies. Mistress Isobel after falling into a daze following being scratched, vanishes without trace. Peter, trying to work out what drove Rosalind crazy, spends the night in the attic room, and he too hears something moving under the floorboards. A misshapen hand grabs Peter’s wrist through a trap door, which Peter seals by weighing it down after pulling free. Later Peter awakens from his sleep with the alien hand trying to strangle him. Peter hacks it off with a knife, but when the Judge bursts in it proves he’s actually cut off his own hand in a hallucinatory rage. Angel and a growing band of locals, mostly youths but also including elderly members, form a coven that meets in the woods and lures chosen victims, including Cathy’s brother Mark (Robin Davies) and then Cathy herself, in order to harvest the growths which are gradually reconstituting the devilish creature Ralph uncovered.
The horror genre as it has been defined ever since the first Gothic novels of the late 1700s has consistently been about a disparity between a modern rationalist, sceptical sensibility, and the tendency of semi-repressed anxieties to rupture through that rationalism, clad in demonic guises. Whilst horror films still regularly invoke such guises sourced in mythology from before the Industrial Revolution, like vampires, werewolves, and zombies, nonetheless few venture back into the remoter contexts from which those creatures spring, for just that reason; the genre feeds, ironically, on our simultaneous lack of credulity yet also our willingness to on some level recognise the fears and fantasies they embody, and fascination in seeing the two attitudes collide. The Blood on Satan’s Claw, on the other hand, belongs to the intriguingly small number of horror movies set in that older world, if still shy of a genuinely medieval setting. It takes place instead at the turn of the eighteenth century, the cusp of the age of Enlightenment. As in Ken Russell’s near-concurrent The Devils, this is a world perched between the assumptions of an era in which evidence of witchcraft would have been met with immediate prosecution, and a modern sensibility that would dismiss it, as indeed the Judge does, and yet it presents a ready channel for insidious impulses within the characters and the worlds they represent. Whilst the satanic force that overtakes Haggard’s story, unlike in Russell’s, is genuine, there is a similarly feverish depiction of rampant release and hysterical indulgence permeating the increasingly perverted and cruel events, and innocence is quickly crushed between the opposing forces. As Russell’s nuns and priests erupt in orgiastic behaviour in hunting down the devil, so too Haggard’s villagers are swiftly swept away in a love/death cult where gruesome physical curtailing is the price for release from chains of social and sexual oppression.
The period English hamlet where the drama takes place and its surrounds appear on one level fitting recreations of William Blake’s idealised rural Edens of England’s past. Yet low grey clouds oppress every vista and crows peer out from above tangled forests, hinting at the malevolence as well as bounty offered by nature, which a human world, sustained in far more perilous equilibrium between survival and annihilation than we’re used to, must contend with. The Judge is characterised as both the pillar of the local establishment, and yet also a subversive element, a Catholic with an attachment to the exiled James III, son of the king dethroned in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. When he becomes convinced that something supernatural and invidious might indeed be alive in the village, the Judge sets out as a prototypical rationalist and ruthless political agent to find a way to cleanse the evil and then cut it out. His first advice, before leaving on a search for knowledge, is to let the evil spread, and it’s suggested that the Judge’s knowledge of political sedition and reactionary method, rather than religious matters, is what really gives him potency in such a situation, even as he eventually pays attention to the contents of a grimoire to understand how to destroy the beast. The shape of the social assumptions glimpsed throughout has not yet been despoiled by the effects of the various revolutions, political, scientific, and philosophical of the 18th century, and yet, as one character states outright, the bad old days of fulminating irrationalism and belief in invisible malefic influence are supposed to be fading. Fallowfield, the representative of official religion, is an amateur naturalist first glimpsed chasing after a snake, the serpent in this demi-paradise tamed and catalogued, and attempts to carefully corral the budding sexuality in his young charges in school, only to be frustrated as they pass the retrieved totem of the forbidden around, keeping him from glimpsing it and locking it away.
The Blood on Satan’s Claw dabbles in an idea The Wicker Man was to enlarge upon, transmuting the licentiousness of the hippie era into a meditation on a return to a pagan Britain based in an earthy, unfettered, inescapably corporeal creed, where bodies are the truest barometer of spirituality in substance. In a concept later stolen by movies like The Mummy (1999), Satan is literally assembled bit by bit from the pieces grown on sundry villagers, some willing converts to Angel’s cult, others innocent bystanders. Ralph’s initial discovery of the beast buried within earth releases a long-dormant yet sustained and readily infectious pagan force which seems indivisible from the scenery, and when Angel’s coven is glimpsed it comes garbed not in black cloaks and stygian paraphernalia but in nature-child garlands of flowers. The rampant miasma of sexuality sees the unholy mark spreading on the locals like the tell-tale stigmata of venereal diseases. Hayden, who gained initial stature as a horror starlet in Peter Sasdy’s Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969) playing a respectable Victorian daughter turned into a vessel of vengeful sexuality to punish a hypocritical father, here plays the teenage girl as the embodiment of everything destructive to the settled order.
Satan’s Claw clearly channels a deliberately paranoid vision of the counterculture, presenting anti-heroine Angel as a sort of homicidal hippie chick and distaff Charles Manson who whips up a flock of flower-bedecked folk into a cabal of Satan-worshipping, organ-harvesting fiends. In such a fashion, Satan’s Claw anticipates The Exorcist (1973) in purposefully burrowing into an unease and guilt in the contemporary mindset that maybe those recherché religious notions and stereotypes have something to them after all. Haggard’s film hits the same themes far more squarely in the process, not hiding the fear of emergent, insolent sexuality in a pre-pubescent but in Angel, a roaring erotic force obviously chafing from the start against decency in her toey play with friends and swift readiness to challenge Fallowfield. Simultaneously there is more than a hint, in the images of severed limbs and misshapen humanity, of the way the emphasis of the genre was already shifting in the next decade to one of an assault on the coherence of the body, from serial killer hack-fests to David Lynch and David Cronenberg’s myths of perverted flesh, as repression gave way to erotic anxiety. The images of characters exhorted to hack bits off themselves in order to gain social inclusion, sexual gratification, or simply survival, takes on a predicative dimension, familiar to us in an age where plastic surgery and bodily self-hate infuse a world and desirability has become, not so subtly, linked with economic worth. The scene late in the film where Ralph is tempted to cut off his leg by a nude dancing girl is tangibly erotic, of course, but actually after initial viewings takes on another meaning: Ralph, a working man, is drawn to pervert his own form in order to gain a material pleasure, a notion that again takes on an economic ramification. Satan repeatedly tempts with sex whilst demanding a steeper price, self-mutilation, redolent of class warfare, as per a theory, articulated by artists as different as E.L. Doctorow and Gang of Four, linking commercialised sex with the anaesthetising of the exploited.
The minister’s name squarely designates him as something infertile, contrasting the field from which the devil springs and the subsequent linkages of sex, pillaging, and obscenity that corrode the human world. Angel’s attempt to seduce Fallowfield sees her confront him naked in his own church, provoking him to admit her beauty even as he condemns her shamelessness. Angel’s seduction is a failure, so she attempts to destroy him instead by claiming he raped her and killed Mark. The immediately credulous local squire Middleton (James Hayter) arrests the priest, raising the spectre of something that’s become even more relevant in recent years: the dichotomous way authority figures like teachers and ministers are given a completely unfettered trust role in forming the young and the absolute fury unleashed when they’re seen to violate that trust which always contains a hint of fulfilled expectation. Ironically Fallowfield lives up to his ideals and is soon exonerated, and yet proves a complete bust in counteracting evil. When the Judge finally returns after a long sojourn in London researching the problem, he comes armed with a colossal sacred sword and an unswerving purpose that sees him threaten one of Angel’s coven, Margaret (Michele Dotrice) with being torn to pieces by dogs if she won’t give him information he needs, a moment that coldly and precisely captures that mood we’re familiar with these days which demands terror be answered with terror.
Haggard builds mood with a rigour that mostly papers over the gaps in the narrative, caused when Haggard was called upon to rewrite Robert Wynne-Simmons’s script, which was originally written as an omnibus film on the theme of demonic manifestation, and stitch it into a contiguous narrative. The gaps are evident in the way some characters seem to vanish or appear out of nowhere, making the film inevitably awkward at a few junctures. But in another way these fault lines actually give the film extra force, making the timeframe difficult to judge, so the drama seems sustained over months, and also more ambiguous and unsettling. The script is also notably cold-blooded in its wilful assault on expectation: both of the film’s major romantic couplings come to singularly grim ends, and the sweetly unpretentious Cathy, paramour to Ralph, finishes up being butchered by the cultists. Ralph himself is less a traditional hero, than an everyman who finds himself at the centre of mad events he’s powerless to control. He even finally finishes up with his leg becoming the last necessary part of the demon’s reconstitution, after he’s intervened to prevent the cult from harvesting a patch on the leg of Margaret, and is dragged off to the coven to be tempted by that dancing girl.
The film’s thematic judiciousness wouldn’t count for much if it wasn’t well articulated, and Haggard builds some spellbinding scenes, as in Peter’s lonely vigil in the attic, awaiting the fiend that drove his lover mad, and finally hacking off his own limb in desperate distraction. Likewise, there’s a wince-worthy portrayal of physical reckoning in which Margaret, who is almost drowned by witch duckers, is rescued by Ralph and he has the local doctor (Howard Goorney) slice off the patch of satanic skin on her leg. The Judge uses this to give his dogs the scent and chase Margaret through the woods. She finishes up with a bear trap about her leg, left to suffer and be torn to pieces by the animals by Angel when she discovers Margaret’s surgery. It’s really in one central scene however that The Blood on Satan’s Claw hits an extraordinary note of practical perfection in the genre, when Cathy is lured to an abandoned church in the midst of the woods by two lads pretending to be playing a game. There the cult await her, springing out of the woods, laughing, massed wearing wreaths of flowers and commencing their giddy nature-rites in swooning Pre-Raphaelite hues in the most festive of occasions. Except that as Cathy looks closer, she notices how they’ve all got pieces missing from their bodies, bandaged hands and heads, stained red. A mood of growing terror and outright frenzy builds as Cathy is held prostrate, her back with its patch of furred skin bared to all, she’s raped by one of the cult, and Angel stabs her to death as she and other women in the cult gyrate in auto-erotic frenzies.
This is a startling, vicious, horrifically beautiful scene, not only in capturing the shock of someone like Cathy suddenly becoming a fetish for newly fiendish friends, penetrated by the men but with the girls like Angel and Margaret clearly the ones really getting their rocks off, but in the way it channels and inverts the prettified flower-child and nature-worship tropes into a portrait of total degradation, watched over by the half-finished devil sitting in the corner, groaning hoarsely for “my skiiiiiiinnnnn!” The finale is nearly as vividly bizarre, with Angel now, make-up lending her an increasingly satanic visage herself with each passing scene, actually canoodling with the beast and finishing up skewered on a pitchfork by assaulting villagers, and the Judge making his heroic tilt at the devil, who still only has one leg to stand on, stabbing the fiend and casting him into a bonfire. Haggard brings the film to a screaming halt fixing on the Judge’s war face, gritting teeth as the flames consume his enemy and light his own face, as if the Judge himself and not the devil is the real overlord of perdition, personification of a vengeful god.