‘Blood On Satan’s Claw’ (2018) reviewed

A respectful take on a folk horror classic, starring Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith and Alice Lowe.

Indie audio drama production house Bafflegab is the home of Paul Magrs’ Baker’s End and Brenda & Effie series, and the adventures of Simon Barnard & Paul Morris’ Scarifyers. Although these series are notable for their quirky, eccentric, comic flavour, there’s always been a distinct whiff of folk horror about them – it’s no coincidence that Scarifyers’ Professor Edward Dunning takes his name from the protagonist of MR James’ Casting The Runes!

With their latest release, which has just been released as an Audible exclusive, to be followed in June as a physical/download release, Bafflegab has gone straight to the source with a full-blooded audio dramatization of cult classic Blood On Satan’s Claw, a memorable tale of demonic possession and religious conflict spreading across an seventeenth century village, triggered by the accidental excavation of the remains of something neither man nor beast.

For the uninitiated, Blood On The Satan’s Claw is a 1971 film directed by Piers Haggard for Tigon Productions, that has come to be regarded – alongside Tigon’s Witchfinder General and Thorn-EMI’s The Wicker Man – as one of the ‘unholy trinity’ of films that define the folk horror genre in its purest form. Indeed, it was Haggard who apparently first coined the label ‘folk horror’ in Mark Gatiss’ 2011 documentary series A History of Horror.

In an earlier We Are Cult article on Robin Hardy and The Wicker Man, I offered the following definition of ‘folk horror’:

Hermetically sealed (usually rural) communities; imagery of agriculture, fertility and the soil; modern man standing on the precipice of deeper, hidden, horrors and the friction that arises; a haunting of the present by the past; and the arrival of an innocent outsider drawn into this hinterland.

For something to be classed as folk horror’ it doesn’t necessarily have to encompass all of the above themes and motifs – there are urban, contemporary-set folk horrors such as German indie film Linkeroever, (arguably) occult classic Rosemary’s Baby and Ben Wheatley’s brutally violent crime flick Kill List – and as the genre has gained increasing popularity in recent years, the definition has become slippery and flexible enough to encompass everything from TV classics such as Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (Granada, 1969/1970), Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (BBC, 1972) and Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray’s Children of the Stones (HTV, 1977) to the Scarfolk website, the output of Ghost Box Records, Radiohead’s Burn The Witch promo video and the BBC comedy series The League of Gentlemen (1999 – 2018).

Indeed, The League have been leading the folk horror revival ever since the world of Royston Vasey made the transition from radio to television, appearing on a commentary track of the DVD release of Blood On Satan’s Claw, and revisiting the genre in Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s anthology series Inside Number 9 with the episodes The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge (2015) and The Ghost of Christmas (2016). Fitting, then, that Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith star in this new audio production of Blood On Satan’s Claw, joined by Linda Hayden from the original film and Alice Lowe – one of Ben Wheatley’s alumni and notable for her own riffs on the genre, Sightseers and Prevenge. They’re joined by a cast that includes John Heffernan (Ripper Street, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell), Ralph Ineson (The Witch, The Office) and Philip Hill-Pearson (Shameless, Good Cop).

As scriptwriter Mark Morris told We Are Cult: “The calibre of the cast we’ve been able to attract to the project is phenomenal, and a testament to the film’s enduring impact. Blood on Satan’s Claw is back – and I’m incredibly proud, this time around, to be a part of it.” 

Reece Shearsmith, Linda Hayden, Mark Gatiss.

This new version of Blood On Satan’s Claw is faithful to the original production, with Reece Shearsmith stepping into Anthony Ainley’s shoes as the unfortunate Reverend Fallowfield, channelling one of Ainley’s more restrained and considered performances.

Although Blood On Satan’s Claw has something of a lurid reputation – due mainly to Linda Hayden’s disturbing, sexually charged performance as Angel and an unpleasant scene in which Wendy Padbury (Doctor Who’s cherubic child genius Zoe no less) is gang-raped – it is on the whole a low-key piece, with more in common with Amicus’ And Now The Screaming Starts (1973) and Hammer’s Demons Of The Mind (1971) than the grand guignol of Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man’s world of sensuality and mischief.

Not so much an exploitation film as a thoughtful, nuanced meditation on the nature of superstition, corruption and hypocrisy, the prurience lurking behind piety, and how a single disruptive influence brings these conflicts to the surface and threatens the authority and hierarchy of a superstitious rural community, in this sense the more intimate medium of audio drama means that Blood On Satan’s Claw is a natural fit for the format.

As well as some well-judged performances by the cast – the always-excellent Alice Lowe is particularly good while Reece Shearsmith is always good value as Inside Number 9’s current run has reminded us, and Linda Hayden is formidably steely in a role worlds away from that of Angel (played here by Rebecca Ryan, bringing her own take on Hayden’s original role) – what marks out Blood On Satan’s Claw as a truly credible piece of audio drama is the atmospheric yet unintrusive score by Edwin Sykes and the evocative sound design by Simon Robinson, which transplants you straight into this bucolic, sinister environment from the first crowing of birds as they wheel in the evening sky as something inhuman is unearthed by the farmer’s plough.

One might question the raison d’etre of an audio adaptation of a production easily accessible on shiny disc, but that would be to miss the point. We never tire of timeless classics of yesteryear being revisited for stage, screen or radio, if we take the work of the aforementioned M.R. James as an example – Night of the Demon can still be enjoyed no matter how many times you have re-read Casting The Runes (and vice versa) and the enduring popularity of the BBC’s Ghost Stories For Christmas (itself exhumed by Mark Gatiss earlier this decade) only enhanced the reputation and awareness of James’ work.

In this sense, the modern classics that originated on screen should be no exception, a continuation of the folk tradition of passing down stories through the ages – there is a perfectly good precedent with Susan Hill’s relatively youthful The Woman In Black, after all (We don’t talk about Hammer’s unnecessary sequel). Perhaps Bafflegab’s Blood On Satan’s Claw might open the door to a new wave of re-tellings of modern classics in a similar vein?

Bafflegab has produced an audio drama doesn’t usurp the original, but is a respectful, accomplished and reflective interpretation of the source material, best enjoyed by the listener on a dark cold and windy January night, tucked up in bed at night, headphones on, illuminated by nothing more than the dim glow of a bedside lamp.

‘Blood On Satan’s Claw’ was released on 16 January 2018 as an Audible Original Drama. Order here:  https://www.audible.co.uk/pd/Sci-Fi-Fantasy/Blood-on-Satans-Claw-Audiobook/B078J7CNCQ/

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