Leering, curly haired yokels prowl the English countryside, driven to rape and kill by the power of the devil, an eyeball peers up from a bleached skull in a freshly ploughed field, and a glassy-eyed girl smiles seductively at her fiancée her hand transformed into a monstrous claw. It’s no wonder that League Of Gentlemen‘s Mark Gatiss (who also visited the film in his BBC series A History Of Horror), Reece Sheersmith, and Jeremy Dyson were so keen to lend their delightfully rambling stream-of-consciousness commentary to this all-new Blu-ray reissue.
Genuinely creepy and intoxicatingly atmospheric, the dense period fog surrounding Tigon‘s 1970 chiller The Blood On Satan’s Claw – released 3-years after their high watermark in similar territory with the Vincent Price-led Witchfinder General – makes this lusciously shot film far more akin to Ken Hughes’ melodramatic biopic Cromwell, than any of Hammer‘s increasingly stodgy and stagey 1970s output.
A very English brand of harvest festival horror, The Blood On Satan’s Claw continues the rural conflict between agents of Satan and the equally murderous and uncompromising agents of God in the 17th Century that Tigon executive producer Tony Tenser kicked off to great effect and much controversy with Witchfinder General.
For a very brief period, before the coming of US splatter masters Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper a year or two later, Tigon looked set to tear Hammer’s crown from the studio’s bloated head with content far gristlier and far more disturbing than the once-controversial house that dripped blood seemed capable of, and The Blood On Satan’s Claw, from that shocking opening scene of an eyeball starring up from the soil onward, probed society’s moral line with unrelenting ferocity.
Starting life as three loosely connected tales later strung together into one narrative, the disjointed pacing definitely shows as the remains of some devilish beastie found in a field begin to exert a supernatural influence over the young people of a rural community. one goes screechingly insane in the night, growing claws and slashing out at those who try to help her- others grow tufts of demonic fur, and another, the smouldering Angel Blake played by rising horror icon Linda Hayden (Taste The Blood Of Dracula, Madhouse) becomes a flirtatious harpy, goading the other children on and tormenting the adults with her eerie charisma.
Like 1973’s The Wicker Man, the conflict and contrast between earthy pagan sexuality and austere Christian probity is heavy throughout (and Cromwellian England is as effective for this as Victorian England was in Bram Stoker’s Dracula), playing to the audience’s fears of the permissive age dawning outside of the theatre’s doors, especially in her attempted seduction of future Doctor Who villain Anthony Ainley‘s stern Reverend Fallowfield, that in true Tigon style involves stripping completely naked.
While Robin Hardy‘s aforementioned all-singing, all-dancing pagan panto ensures this worldview is as tempting for us as viewers as it is for the protagonist – the cosmology of The Wicker Man is morally neutral, it’s the actions of its players that are questionable – director Piers Haggard (Quatermass, Venom) shows us how quickly absolute evil can subvert our desires.
One lad is lured to a ruined church to play by his infatuation for Angel Blake before being strangled with vines, and the pure-hearted Cathy Vespers (Wendy Padbury) is dragged to the church where a procession of garland-bedecked, lip-smackingly lusftful youths and a cackling crone chant and jeer as she’s raped – a scene all the more disquieting (if such a thing were possible) as it’s Second Doctor companion Zoe being gruesomely assaulted, while Betty from Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em looks on in a state of some arousal.
Playing neatly into the face-off between sensuality and repression, is reason and superstition, and town versus country – best personified by the listless Judge (Patrick Wymark) brushes off all talk of the Satanic (“Doctor, witchcraft is dead and discredited,” he intones, capably enough, but you can’t help but wish they’d scratched together the cash for their ideal choices of Lee or Cushing. “Are you bent on reviving forgotten horrors?”) from the peasants and the country Doctor, before his resolve steels and he reappears as a torture-happy Witchsmeller Pursuivant (“Leave me to judge who is innocent!”).
The Judge’s transformation from disbelieving authority figure (Horror Archetype #12) to holy avenger (Horror Archetype #6) isn’t the most convincing of arcs, and sadly it sets the tone for a final battle between light and darkness so anticlimactic that it would wait until The Omen III: The Final Conflict to be worsened/bettered. Angel Blake, the Lilith of the South-West, walks into a pitchfork in freeze-frame, and then the Judge draws a wobbly sword and forces back a mob of recoiling cultists, before hoisting the hooded rat-demon monster (looking like an embarrassed Tetrap from the 1987 Doctor Who story ‘Time And The Rani’) over his shoulder – flames lick the screen, everyone’s monstrous mutations heal, credits roll.
A rarely discussed element of The Blood On Satan’s Claw, though, is just how prevalent themes of body horror are throughout. The duelling disgust and fascination as the village’s children discover their patches of fur, hiding it from sight and fleeing from the inevitable, and the Poe-like nightmare of young soldier who believes his hand has been become a bestial claw, and hacks it off in his delirium – has more in common with the shape the subgenre would take in the late-70s and 80s, than it does inner-turmoil monster-man pictures.
Though undeniably flawed – from the weak conclusion and unconvincing Judge character, all the way down to variable archaic English dialogue and amdram forelock-tugging West Country accents – it’s clear that this subversive and shocking gem from the twilight of Britain’s period macabre has much to admire, to adore and to devour.
The likes of Hammer and Amicus were soon to be wrongfooted by the arrival of exploitation cinema in the US, the immediacy of the slasher, and the likes of The Exorcist, that pulled the demonic from the realms of costume drama and into the audience’s suburban homes with a newly sacrilegious, taboo-shattering fury.
As last stands go, The Blood On Satan’s Claw is suitably glorious.