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Blood on Satan's Claw (1971)
In 1968, the British production company Tigon had found a measurable degree of success with the release of Michael Reeves' classic tale of greed and corruption, Witchfinder General. In a concerted effort to provide audiences with a film along the same lines a screenplay by Robert Wynne-Simmons was commissioned, Piers Haggard was brought on board to direct, and The Blood on Satan's Claw took root. In most cases, when a film is made by a studio hoping to cash in on a previous effort, the resulting film comes across as mere imitation. In this instance, however, a perfect combination of accurate period details, overwhelming atmosphere, and convincing central performances help provide the basis for one of the finest British horror films of the 1970s.
The story takes place in a 17th century English village where plow boy Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews) has uncovered a mysterious set of bones belonging to what he can only describe as a "fiend". He fetches a traveling judge (Patrick Wymark) to investigate his find, but his claims are dismissed as the bones seem to have vanished. Later that night a local girl is overtaken by madness, and through some form of sinister means she grows a menacing looking claw. Convinced that something sinister is afoot, The Judge vows to return after attending to business he has in London. While preparing to leave the remote hamlet he warns that an ancient evil will soon begin to grow, and although people will die, the villagers must be patient and allow it to come to fruition in order to destroy it. In his absence the village begins to succumb to a plague like disease and the local children, led by Angel Blake (Linda Hayden), are drawn into a satanic cult bent on sacrifice and murder.
Wynne-Simmons crafts a superior period piece by injecting the screenplay for The Blood on Satan's Claw with an essential degree of historical depth. Every detail within the film manages to carry a weight of authenticity which never falters. The harsh reality of life during the time period the film emulates is well represented even in the most minor aspects. For instance, there is a scene where a doctor tells a person suffering from a fever that he intends to open a vein in order to bleed the sickness out. Although this sounds rather insane now, in the 17th century it was common practice. Haggard is successful at transporting the viewer to another time frame because of this heavy emphasis on accuracy in the most minuscule of details.
The overall sense of atmosphere that helps carry The Blood on Satan's Claw can be attributed, in large part, to cinematographer Dick Bush who sets an ominous tone from the start. Shot under slate gray skies there is a sense of hopelessness established through the photography from which the film never relents. Having the luxury of what turned out to be a ideal filming location (Bix Bottom Valley-Oxfordshire, England) was key to his ability in achieving this. The rolling hills, and surrounding woodlands provide a beautiful background for Bush's masterful use of widescreen lenses. The muted color scheme, accomplished by shooting in the fall season, gels to perfection with the film's dark subject matter.
As with any atmospheric chiller the music is an important part of the equation. Composer, conductor Marc Wilkinson's orchestral compositions are used to heighten terror and suspense by accentuating scenes in which this is the directors primary objective. This is noticeable from the outset in the scene where Ralph Gower first unearths the bones of the beast in a pre-opening credits sequence. As Ralph notices a grouping of birds gathered around what he thinks is a dead animal, the music creeps in. It builds as he approaches, and reaches a crescendo as he uncovers a skull with a worm covered eyeball. The score then falls into a haunting melody that plays over the opening titles, which is a perfect example of how music can aid in scene transition. This kind of musical dynamic is sustained by Wilkinson for all of the key scenes in the film, and is paramount in creating fear.
Since this tale concerns itself with the continual struggle of good against evil, Haggard's film places a primary character at either end of the spectrum, and then realizes each one to their full potential thanks in large part to the talented actors who portray them. The Judge, who represents the power of good, is played with conviction by the late Patrick Wymark. Whereas most witch finders in films such as this act without morals, and tend to use persecution for selfish reasons, The Judge is a virtuous man who shows a deep concern for the well being of his subjects. He displays considerable strength when needed, and harbors an intense cynical view when it comes to the supernatural. The former can be evidenced in his final confrontation against the titular beast, and the latter can be summed up with one telling line of dialogue from early in the film. When the possibility of witchcraft is proposed as an explanation for the malady which is infecting the villagers, The Judge states in a defiant manner "Witchcraft is dead, and discredited". Wymark's confident screen presence combined with his capability to shift from calm to aggressive emotional states is an asset to the character, and the film in general.
On the flip side, the films source of evil is of course, the devil himself. Since he takes form as the movie progresses, he must rely on a human presence to spread his influence as he gains the necessary strength for his rebirth. This catalyst is a beautiful teen aged girl named Angel Blake (Linda Hayden). She starts the film as a simple peasant girl, but is transformed into a tool of the devil after discovering a claw belonging to the beast while frolicking in the fields on the outskirts of the village. From that point on she is cast as a seductive temptress whose every devilish deed is meant to bring about the awakening of her master. Be it influencing the local children into forming a sacrificial cult, or accusing the village Reverend of rape after he denies her sexual advances, every act serves this singular purpose. Hayden's alluring natural beauty, as well as her unique ability to disguise evil as innocence are both major factors in bringing this character to life, and she succeeds on both fronts.
Although The Blood on Satan's Claw has never enjoyed the widespread appeal of Witchfinder General, the film nevertheless has persevered in cult circles, and has since gone on to become thought of by many as a true classic of the genre. Piers Haggard's tale of witchcraft and satanism unleashed on a remote English parish should be tops on numerous "must have" lists provided the film ever receives its much needed North American DVD release.