Farmer Ralph (Barry Andrews) disturbs a very unusual looking skull hidden in the earth. When he summons the district’s Judge (Patrick Wymark, in his final role), it has vanished. The local children, led by the precocious Angel Blake (Linda Hayden), have better luck and find a claw. Soon, led by satanic disciple Angel, they are skipping church lessons and spending all their time in a ruined church, performing rituals and lopping parts body parts off in order to rebuild their ‘Master’. It is up to the Judge and the villager’s unaffected by the Devil’s influence to defeat the evil.
One of my favourite sub-genres of horror is what has been termed as ‘folk horror’, in which seemingly pleasant rural locations are a front for nefarious occult practises. Films such as The Wicker Man and the underrated 1966 Hammer film The Witches fall into this category, as does Blood on Satan’s Claw (also known as Satan’s Skin), a 1971 film directed by Piers Haggard.
Blood on Satan’s Claw is a richly atmospheric film, with a pervading sense of dread that starts building as soon as Ralph finds the (still disturbing looking to this day) fur covered skull in the dirt. Shooting most of the film on location was a wise move, as it really takes the audience into the isolated nature of the place, and only adds to the unsettlement felt as all sorts of depraved acts happen in such gorgeous surroundings. The attention to detail with the period setting is replicated admirably on what was a tight budget (although the abundance of ‘thous’ and such in the script does border on parody at certain points). The acting is impressive, especially from Patrick Wymark, Linda Hayden (who’s eyebrow game is seriously on point) and Anthony Ainley as the Reverend Fallowfield who must resist various urges when Hayden’s Angel disrobes in front of him and attempts to seduce him. Points also go to Wendy Padbury as innocent villager Cathy Vespers, who acts her way brilliantly through a harrowing rape scene.
The plot itself is slightly more muddled. It was originally conceived by screenwriter Robert Wynne-Simmons as three separate stories with a common thread, an anthology essentially. When the three tales were mashed together for the film it feels like they were literally mashed, with characters and sub plots vanishing and timing of events being all over the place. The ending suffers from being slightly anti-climatic and very abrupt, favouring the classic Hammer Studios “we’ve run out of money so lets just end on a frozen pose while the credits start to roll’ technique. The Devil itself is cleverly concealed until the final scene, when we do see it looks creepy and is well designed, but slightly let down by the fact that the last limb it needs to complete itself is a foot, so in the final confrontation between good and evil, the evil side is hopping.
The score by Mark Wilkinson is eerie and effecting, with spiky jolting moments that strike out in all the right places. Pier’s Haggard’s direction is tight and he brings out the best in everything he had at his disposal; actors, location, script and music. Like many horror films, it holds many more themes and ideas than most people would give it credit for; going against the Church, burgeoning sexuality and teenage rebellion are all encapsulated in the character of Angel. Also invoked is the concept of whether the ‘Good’ side is always as virtuous as it appears, as Wymark’s Judge is a pretty unpleasant character; rude, ignorant, cruel, stubborn and not above physical violence himself. Blood On Satan’s Claw is not as fondly remembered as the Wicker Man and the more successful Witchfinder General (made by Tigon studios, who also made Blood On Satan’s Claw) but it is a compelling, unique and very British offering, that stays with you long after viewing, and surely deserves a wider audience.
Words: Fliss Burton