❉ Piers Haggard’s film is, along with The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General, one of the trinity of great British folk horror films.
Concerning the effects of the accidental unearthing of the rotting remains of Satan in a field by simple rural ploughman Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews), it could be read as a metaphor for the rebelliousness of the youth counter-culture of the 60s as its revolutionary ideals segued into the lost innocence and decadent corruption of the 70s.
The film is set in that peculiar period of European history just before the Age of Reason, during which rationalism existed alongside superstition. The initial voice of reason is The Judge (Patrick Wymark), who scoffs at the notion of supernatural forces after he is asked to investigate the find. His scepticism is further reinforced when Ralph shows him the site, only to discover the body has disappeared, save for a few fragments of bone.
Reverend Fallowfield (Anthony Ainley, later the Master in TV’s Doctor Who), hasn’t seen anything either, but as he catches a serpent in the long grass, he claims that, “Since Meg Parsons died, strange folk have been seen to pass this way…” The off-screen Meg Parsons, presumably, was a witch, who perhaps summoned the dark forces, but since she’s no longer around, no one is keeping them in check.
The mystery of where the body has got to is soon answered when Rosalind Barton (Tamara Ustinov), fiancée of Peter Edmonton (Simon Williams), goes insane after spending the night before their elopement in the attic of the house he shares with his domineering Aunt, Mistress Banham (Avice Landone). Something had chosen to take sanctuary in the room before her…
The Judge is at first rather smug about this, saying that the peasant girl would never have made a suitable wife for Pater, but soon, the scratches she inflicted upon Mistress Banham during the struggle to restrain Rosalind become inexplicably and dangerously infected, and a series of increasingly disturbing incidents take place.
When the remaining fragments of bone left in the field come into the possession of teenager Angel Blake (Linda Hayden) and are passed around amongst the local teens and children like a stash of corrupting grade-A drugs, all hell breaks loose in the form of predatory sexual awakenings and acts of horrific cruelty. Initially, it feels as if the uptight village elders deserve to have their moral indignation challenged, but then unacceptable lines start getting crossed, as if sexual liberation has jumped the shark.
Reverend Fallowfield is framed for molestation after somehow managing to resist a naked Linda Hayden, and most shocking of all, young Cathy Vespers (Wendy Padbury, Zoe from Doctor Who) is gang raped. Pretty soon, everyone who has come in contact with the bones is not only breaking every taboo under the sun (or in this case, the unsettlingly grey early English spring sky), but also growing a patch of furry Satanic skin somewhere on their bodies.
While all this is going on, The Judge and Peter attempt to investigate, resulting in the loss of Peter’s hand after he spends an hallucinatory night in the attic room his betrothed lost her sanity in, and The Judge becoming increasingly convinced dark forces are at work after he begins studying an ancient grimoire, leant to him by the superstitious local Doctor (Howard Goorney), whose medical techniques involve such notions as bleeding the humours and who has to reluctantly and messily remove a patch of Satan’s skin from one of Angel’s disciples, Margaret (Michele Dotrice).
Just as controversial, if not more so, than the same production company’s Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw still has the power to shock. I challenge you not to wince during the excruciating kitchen table operation scene, made all the more bizarre by the fact that the actress having her flesh removed is Frank Spencer’s missus, and it takes a brave (or perhaps just plain sick) soul not to find the prolonged gang rape of one of The Doctor’s most beloved companions tough going. In fact, director Pier Haggard actually expressed regret at its graphic nature in an interview with Mark Gatiss for his excellent series A History of Horror.
It’s not just the sex and violence that’s so shocking. The general atmosphere of dread and creepiness leaves the viewer constantly on edge. Virtually every character goes through their own arc and experiences a corruption of their original selves in some way; Angel goes from innocent to the embodiment of evil; the Judge from sceptic to witchfinder; the Doctor from incompetent superstitious drunk to fledgling enquiring scientist.
It’s one of those films that makes one quake all the way through it, dreading what atrocity might be perpetrated next. There’s one simple shot of a character standing alone in the woods that’s inexplicably terrifying, and the sequence where Ralph is constantly a few steps behind rescuing Cathy from a series of increasingly horribly ordeals are packed full of tension, not because we are hoping she’ll be rescued but because we know this is the sort of film in which she won’t.
Lastly, it has one of the best scores in horror film history, and that’s not hyperbole. It’s not exactly a beautiful score, but it comes close. It’s more that its perfect anti-beauty and uncanny off-kilterness is a perfect fit for the nihilistic and dread-filled tone of the film. It’ll stay under your skin for weeks after the film is over.
Whilst all these elements are powerful on their own, The Blood on Satan’s Claw is slightly less than the sum of its parts. The various plot strands don’t quite come together, mainly as a result of early drafts taking the form of an anthology film in which three separate stories would branch out from the initial discovery of the remains and combine for the climax, and while we’re on the subject of climaxes, the end seems rather rushed and abrupt.
Nevertheless, for its departure from the usual Hammer-inspired formula and its mould-breaking audacity, The Blood on Satan’s Claw proved massively influential. Flickers of it pop up in The League of Gentlemen TV series, Ben Wheatley’s equally unnerving A Field in England (2013) and even Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009). Despite its flaws, it’s never short of nightmarish.
❉ About the author: Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became an actor and has appeared in several film and television productions.
❉ Jonathan Sisson’s 2001 film ‘The Institute’ is now online on Vimeo and can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/193049022