By Nia Edwards-Behi
I’ve already had the pleasure of writing at length about one of my all-time favourite films for this website’s anniversary retrospective series, when in 2012 I wrote about The Last House on the Left’s 40th anniversary. Time goes on and now I’m very excited to have the pleasure of commemorating 45 years of another of my set-in-stone favourites: Blood on Satan’s Claw. 45 years on from its release, it still stands proudly as one of the finest examples of the British ‘folk horror’ cycle alongside its infamous stablemate Witchfinder General and the one everyone’s seen, The Wicker Man.
There’s a history in Britain for committing great, incomprehensible violence toward individuals who were believed to associate with the devil, and this history has been mined in its horror cinema. In the ‘folk horror’ tradition, there’s broadly two sorts of film in which the recollection of this past appears. While films like The Wicker Man or Satan’s Slave use the invocation of this past Britain in a contemporary setting, often resulting in the triumph of archaic ritual in a contemporary setting, others are explicitly period-set, like Blood on Satan’s Claw, a past Britain providing a safe space to explore the nastier implications of devil worship, and often ending with the devil defeated, at least arbitrarily. Blood on Satan’s Claw is one of the finest examples of these films, in my opinion, primarily due to its wonderful atmosphere of creeping evil. The Judge aside, the film is primarily interested in the way the evil spreads in the village, rather than the quest to stamp it out – those villagers who begin in fear are discredited at almost every turn – or end up dead.
In rural 18th Century England, a farm worker, Ralph (Barry Andrews), uncovers a strange skull while ploughing a field. Soon, villagers begin to act strangely, starting with Rosalind (Tamara Ustinov), fiancée of the farm’s young master, Peter (Simon Williams). The discovery of the skull primarily seems to affect the village’s children, led by Angel Blake (Linda Hayden) – though some, such as Cathy Vespers (Wendy Padbury) remain good. Ralph insists that the local judge (Patrick Wymark) investigate the evil that seems to be taking over, but he remains sceptical until people begin dying. Once Peter convinces the Judge of the truth of the matter, he must return to the village to do battle with evil itself.
It almost goes without saying that Linda Hayden is an enormously important part of Blood on Satan’s Claw’s enduring appeal. While I’m about to embark on a verbose, over-wrought account of just how clever and interesting the film is, it’s really quite important to point out that Angel Blake is simply one of the best villains in British horror cinema, and that reflects on the film as a whole. Leon Hunt has described the character as ‘Lolita from Hell’, which sums her up perfectly. We barely glimpse Angel before she comes into contact with the claw which seemingly turns her evil, but there is enough suggestion that she’s always been a bit wayward – from her toying with Mark when we first meet her, and the Reverend’s assertion that her behaviour has seemed odd for quite some time. The sort of power Angel soon asserts over the other children – and indeed some of the adults – could easily have been rendered unconvincing, to the complete detriment of the film, if not for Hayden’s masterful performance. Although she is no doubt hugely exploited for her sex appeal and her burgeoning star persona, Hayden brings much more than seduction to the role of Angel, even if that is her main draw. Indeed, there are certain shots in the film – close-up on Angel’s face, as she seems to will wrong-doing to others – that seem to explicitly recall the most famous photo of the then very recent child-murderer Mary Bell. While I don’t want to claim that this must have been intentional, I’m certainly not the first to draw a line from Blood on Satan’s Claw to much more contemporary concerns.
As much as I adore the film, it’s fair to say that its somewhat troubled production shows in the finished product. Written by Robert Wynne-Simmons and directed by Piers Haggard for Tony Tenser’s Tigon Productions, Blood on Satan’s Claw was originally intended to be an anthology film. This is most evident when Rosalind and Peter’s plotline is seemingly forgotten about early on in the film, until Peter plays messenger near the film’s climax. It’s also evident that the production ran out of money – as seen in the film’s climactic showdown stretched out with slow-motion and then abruptly ending. Wynne-Simmons’ original script supposedly ended with an outright massacre, with the Judge forced to kill many villagers, including children, but the budgetary constraints result in a somewhat less spectacular climax to the film. Even so, the film manages to be extremely interesting, even in the face of creative and financial complications.
If there is to be an attempt at wiping out evil, the quest to do so naturally needs a figurehead. A lot of British horror films during the 50s and 60s would feature an obvious hero to save the day against some supernatural evil, even if the hero figure wasn’t always the most interesting part of the film. However, as with the horror genre as a whole, things were changing throughout the 1960s and indeed by the 1970s there were plentiful examples of heroes not always emerging triumphant. A prime example would be Witchfinder General, which, having positioned the witchfinder himself as evil rather than the so-called witches, finds its hero in noble soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy). But, though heroic in his ostensible defeat of Hopkins, he pays dearly with his own sanity, and likely that of his traumatised fiancée too. It’s not clear who the hero might be in Blood on Satan’s Claw, in part due to the aforementioned changes in script during production. Many characters seem set-up to be the ‘hero’ of the film – there’s Ralph, the nice young man who loses the girl he loves to the demon and resists its influence to the end, or Peter, a man returning home to introduce his fiancée to his family. Arguably the film’s clearest hero-figure is sceptical authority figure The Judge, as he seems to destroy the demon at the film’s climax. However, the finality of his apparent success is very subtly undermined thanks to some crafty filmmaking. While the opening scene presents us with an uncanny close-up of an eye still in the socket of the strange skull unearthed by Ralph, so the film ends with a close-up of The Judge’s eye, surrounded by the flames of the fire that we assume is consuming the demon.
To further underline the film’s concluding ambiguity, we only need turn an ear to the soundtrack. Marc Wilkinson’s score is one of my absolute favourite things about the film, and it really manages to amp-up the impact of everything that happens on screen. There are two distinct leitmotifs that occur again and again in the film: the gentle pastoral melody that sounds like a folk song – but isn’t, according to its composer – and the chromatic scale that plays over it. When the film ends, on the still image of The Judge’s eye, that chromatic scale, which sounds a lot to me like a laugh, is still chuckling away, and indeed once the credits have finished rolling – and with the eye still on-screen – that scale is all that remains on the soundtrack. Wynne-Simmons has himself noted that he considered the demonic character to be more ‘alive’ than The Judge, who essentially represents an archaic sense of authority. For the sense of evil to transfer or persist to The Judge at the film’s close isn’t, I don’t think, too much of a leap.
There’s another scene in the film in which the music plays a very key role, and it’s perhaps the film’s most effective, memorable and troubling scene: the rape and murder of Cathy Vespers. Cathy, played by Wendy Padbury, is the film’s ‘good girl’ – she’s religious, cares for her family and is giddy about the burgeoning romance between her and Ralph. She is sweetness embodied, but her sweetness does not save her. While in the American horror tradition that would emerge later in the decade the virginal Cathy would undoubtedly be the survivor of the film, in Blood on Satan’s Claw her downfall is a troubling conflation of sex and violence. Horror, by now, is perhaps one of the most obvious arenas which sees sex and violence frequently combined, but what stands out in Blood on Satan’s Claw is the sheer joyfulness of a scene of a most heinous act. Unlike the earlier murder of Cathy’s brother Mark, Cathy’s death is ritualistic and painfully drawn out – we sense she’s in real danger much earlier than she does, and even when she does she’s truly helpless. What makes the sequence really effective is the children’s glee in the act, and the complicity it invites in the viewer. The music in the scene turns triumphant and celebratory, and plays a great role in inviting viewer complicity with the mood. I’m not trying to suggest that the scene invites the viewer to replicate the feelings of enjoyment of the girl’s rape and murder; rather, the scene is precisely all the more disturbing because of its depiction of the act as a happy one for the children – it’s the moment their ecstatic nihilism (to borrow from Leon Hunt) is at its most profound. The scene best brings together all of the more serious aspects of the film, which is perhaps put best and most concisely by Wynne-Simmons himself, when he describes the film as being about “the inherent evil of children and the overt sexuality of evil”.
For me, it’s impossible to consider the depiction of sex or violence in a film like this without considering the representation of gender. Although Linda Hayden’s sex appeal is exploited as much as her acting talents, Angel Blake is arguably a strong female character, in that she is at least an incredibly memorable villain (and only slightly undermined by the fact that the arguably ‘male’ devil is using her as a vessel for destruction). The representations of women might not have been wholly progressive, but films such as Blood on Satan’s Claw do offer a degree of subversion. The sheer number of significant female characters important – in addition to Angel and Cathy, Margaret (Michelle Dotrice) is a vital part of the picture, and Rosalind is at least as memorable as several of the male characters, even if her appearance is brief.
It would be unfair to simply think of the representation of women in these films: as I’ve touched upon, the heroic male should normally save the day, but the representation of masculinity is much more nuanced. When considering Blood on Satan’s Claw alongside its stablemates, it’s worth noting a certain degree of impotency in would-be heroes of many of these films. Specifically, though, consider Ralph: he is unable to save Cathy, searching fruitlessly for her as she’s attacked and killed, and he then fails in his attempt at saving Margaret as some sort of recompense. He then finds himself afflicted with the devil’s skin, attempts to avoid his fate by cowering in the seemingly doomed attic, and would surely have fallen foul of Angel’s merry band of devils had The Judge not intervened. Similarly, Peter is rendered mostly useless in the film, right from the very beginning, emasculated by his aunt and The Judge, losing his fiancée, chopping off his own hand in a fit of bedevilment and from then on reduced to more or less standing around for the rest of the film. Indeed, The Judge is the only powerful male character in the film – other figures of authority throughout the film either undermined or light relief – and even his victory is rendered somewhat futile through the implication of his own evil. Even if Ralph and the surviving children are freed from the devil’s control in that moment, what awaits them at the hands of The Judge?
Like many of its genre-mates of the period, there is an element of generational conflict apparent in Blood on Satan’s Claw. Seemingly reflecting the social changes of the era, these films frequently represent an over-bearing older generation forcing a rebellion from children. Peter Hutchings has written about the youth of the filmmakers at this time – most famously, of course, the tragic Michael Reeves, only 24 when he made Witchfinder General, and indeed younger when he made The Sorcerers, a film much more overtly about generational conflict. Piers Haggard was only 31 when he directed Blood on Satan’s Claw, while writer Wynne-Simmons had only just left university. For Hutchings, these films were evidence of dissatisfaction amongst young filmmakers with traditional forms of horror, which he also associates with the changes that occurred in American horror around the same time. He identifies a particular sense of patriarchy within the British horror tradition, which makes this rebellion, of sorts, all the more marked in Britain. While the most obvious evidence of this sense of generational conflict in Blood on Satan’s Claw is in the children, early on there is quite a distinctly overbearing sense of tradition established quite apart from any satanic influence.
When Peter brings Rosalind home to his aunt and The Judge, they out-right reject their union. Rosalind is horribly treated by them, and when her screaming starts their immediate response to simply lock her up – she is only a farmer’s daughter, after all – rather than try and help her. This assault from an older generation on the young is clear here – as Aunt Banham tries to slap some sense into Rosalind, so too The Judge physically restrains and strikes Peter, who just wants to help his fiancée. What’s curious in Blood on Satan’s Claw is that it’s actually not only children and young people who are being swayed by the devil – there are some very elderly people in Angel’s cohort too. Perhaps there’s a suggestion then that once we reach a certain age, those in the prime of their lives start treating us as juvenile and impressionable once again.
But, ultimately, is all of this giving Blood on Satan’s Claw more credit than it deserves? I don’t think it is, even if the finished film is a bit of a narrative mess. I can only imagine what an effective film it could have been given the right budget and the right time and space to develop it as initially envisioned by both Wynne-Simmons and Haggard. What the film might lack in story-telling though it more than makes up for in sheer atmosphere. Even with the wonky special effects and all the ‘that it be’ dialogue, the film still manages to be effectively creepy. After 45 years it’s a film that still retains its power to disturb and with it comes a pleasing sense of devilish anarchy.
Peter Hutchings, 2004: ‘Modern Horror and the 1970s’ in The Horror Film
Leon Hunt, 2002: ‘Necromancy in the UK: witchcraft and the occult in British Horror’ in British Horror Cinema, Steve Chibnall & Julian Petley eds.
David Taylor, 1996: ‘“Don’t over-act with your fingers!” The making of Blood on Satan’s Claw’ in Shock: The Essential Guide to Exploitation Cinema, Steven Jaworzyn ed.