'Sunlight and terror'
Commemorating 50 years of
The Blood on Satan's Claw
David Evans-Powell explores Piers Haggard’s 1971 folk horror classic, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and offers some reflections on the more troubling aspects of the film…
Fifty years ago, on 14th April 1971, Tigon’s film The Blood on Satan’s Claw was released to audiences in New York (IMDB, 2021). It tells the tale of an 18th Century rural community beset by horror when a fiendish entity, uncovered from a nearby field, seeks to rebuild its flesh using the bodies of the village youths, and the extreme efforts of a tyrannical Judge (Patrick Wymark) in opposing it.
Released as a double bill with The Beast in the Cellar (James Kelley, 1970), Tigon had high hopes for box office returns and had booked the large 2,600 seater New Victoria Theatre in the West End for the film’s UK debut on 16 July. Sadly, the British film industry was entering its long twilight, and the films performed poorly, leading to the studio pulling them after only a week.
After then, The Blood on Satan’s Claw sank into obscurity, becoming one of countless pictures made during Britain’s horror boom between the mid-fifties and mid-seventies. The early 21st Century though has seen an upswing of interest in Britain’s horror cinema heritage, helped no doubt by a renaissance in British screen horror with the release of celebrated films like 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002), Dog Soldiers (Neil Marshall. 2002), and Eden Lake (James Watkins, 2008) and the revival of the fortunes of Hammer Studios.
This renaissance has proved beneficial for some aspects of Britain’s horror ‘golden age’, with a renewed interest in Hammer’s back-catalogue, and considerable acclaim for Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968) and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). However other films, like The Blood on Satan’s Claw have stubbornly remained in the shadows. This is something that Mark Gatiss draws attention to – and looks to rectify – during the second episode of his 2010 series A History of Horror:
‘The Wicker Man may have become the cult film, and Witchfinder General may have grabbed most of the critical plaudits, but there’s another film that I think deserves much wider appreciation … The film is Blood on Satan’s Claw.’ (Gatiss, 2010; emphasis in original)
It is fair to say that Gatiss has been instrumental in drawing Satan’s Claw out into the sunlight to be re-experienced and re-evaluated. A History of Horror sees him grouping Satan’s Claw with Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man together, something that has proved enormously influential in the development of folk horror, a term that has become ubiquitous in describing cinema and television that shares ‘a common obsession with the British landscape, its folklore and superstitions.’ (Gatiss, 2010). The three are often referred to by commentators and fans as the ‘unholy trinity’.
However, as Gatiss acknowledges, posterity has not treated each of these films equally. Both Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man have transcended their humble roots as British genre films and are now considered to be totems of British horror cinema. The Blood on Satan’s Claw has lagged behind in terms of appreciation; Adam Scovell has poetically described the film as taking longer to gain its ‘heathen heritage’ (Scovell, 2017: 29). Why has The Blood on Satan’s Claw been overlooked for so long? In many ways, it is a film of inconsistencies and problems.
Initially conceived by Tigon as a portmanteau film in the style of Amicus films like Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (Freddie Francis, 1965) and Torture Garden (Freddie Francis, 1967), it was amended during production into a single narrative at the request of writer Robert Wynne-Simmons and director Piers Haggard. Unfortunately, this did not allow for enough time to fully work through the redraft. As such, remnants of the original structure remain, with characters disappearing from the narrative and the focus of the story moving in a rather episodic style.
The film also features as a centrepiece the brutal rape and murder of Cathy Vespers (Wendy Padbury, who had not long departed the TARDIS as companion Zoe Herriot in Doctor Who). It is a troubling sequence for several reasons. Its length and build-up, as well as the content in which Cathy – who is characterised as a pubescent girl – is attacked by other children who enjoy the sight of her violation and killing (indeed, the figure who rapes her bears a queasy resemblance to her brother who had been murdered earlier in the film), makes for disturbing viewing. The edits imposed on the sequence by BBFC Secretary John Trevelyan arguably make the sequence even more horrific; certainly, that was the feeling of writer Wynne-Simmons who felt that by focusing instead on the gleeful reactions of the children it placed the viewer more in a position of voyeurism rather than empathy at Cathy’s plight. Even at a time when sexual content was increasing in horror films – and being more frequently associated with violence – it stands out as a particularly graphic scene.
The film’s inconsistencies and explicitness then, mean that it arguably has struggled in comparison to its ‘unholy trinity’ bedfellows: while Witchfinder General is a grim film it does not include children abusing other children, and where The Wicker Man may end in horrific conflagration its treatment of Sergeant Howie and the Summerislanders feels less salacious (Britt Ekland’s Willow may gyrate naked but she doesn’t lick bloodied sheers clean following a murder-rape).
However, these troubling aspects are the same qualities that make the film so fascinating.
The idiosyncratic nature of the narrative – an anthology of linked stories semi-refined into a single story – might make for inconsistent plotting, but also pleasingly feels unlike any other film of its time. The fluidity this lends to how the film unfolds feels appropriate to the time and place of its setting: a small village in the early 18th Century. There is something of the country tale about the slightly meandering structure, the hint of a folktale told rather than history written. Howard David Ingham has described how the story develops ‘like it’s a countryside tale, or a series of them, with the narrative flow of gossip’ (Ingham, 2018: 27).
Where there are gaps in plotting or exposition, it feels as though the viewer is simply not present for those aspects; they are happening as noises off. The unfolding story draws the viewer in as a witness to some events taking place within a larger web of activity, some of which we hear second-hand, or as hearsay, or only obliquely through incomplete references and unexplained comments. Dick Bush’s superb cinematography – his placing the viewer in the position of a secret observer hidden by foliage, and his use of hand-held cameras during the game of blind man’s buff that leads to Mark’s (Robin Davies) death – makes the viewer complicit. These build a wider diegetic world – rather like a role-player game – in which we glimpse those aspects we come into contact with and must use to make sense of the wider world. The Reverend Fallowfield’s (Anthony Ainley) muttered reference to the death of Meg Parsons and that strange folk have been known to pass by the village, the gossipy interest on the part of the villagers about the forthcoming marriage of Peter Edmonton (Simon Williams) and Rosalind Barton (Tamara Ustinov), the appearance of a large ‘coven’ under Angel Blake’s (Linda Hayden) control and suggestive that more recruitment has been going on out of the viewer’s gaze, and the revelation that Margaret (Michele Dotrice) is not from this village but elsewhere – hinting at other settlements nearby threatened by the fiend – all build a bigger world within the film beyond what the viewer is witness to.
The looser plotting and structure also complement the sense of unease and foreboding that builds from the moment that Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews) uncovers the leering, fiendish face in the field. The slightly awkward conflation of several independent but linked storylines – that of a young woman driven insane when locked in the attic by her wicked aunt, the man who frenziedly hacks off his own possessed hand, and the children who discover a long-buried evil while playing in the fields – means that the diabolical antagonist moves about with a frightening unpredictability, roaming from the field to the manor house and then out to the forest. It appears to be inanimate remains before becoming a force that apparently possesses and drives individuals to murder and mutilate, and finally a physical monster that parasitically regrows its skin on the bodies of others. Meanwhile, characters appear and disappear suddenly within the narrative, while the focus of action shifts abruptly, hinting at a threat that is genuinely unknowable.
Mark Morris has described how this idiosyncratic plotting ‘adds to its sense of queasy and dislocating potency’ (Morris, 2019). This notion of dislocation – of feeling out of place somewhere that should feel comforting and familiar – is a recurrent one in the folk horror tradition. Director Piers Haggard’s experiences of growing up on a farm shine through in how he characterises the English landscape as something beautiful, familiar and cherished, as a vast panorama that isolates the community within it, and as a backdrop to extreme acts of brutality. Haggard was keen to emphasise ‘the power of the darkness of the countryside’ (Haggard, 2019) where there is an intrinsic and inseparable relationship between the beauty and savagery of the landscape. Much of the violence – particularly the rape, murder and mutilation of children – takes place out in the open of the rural landscape and in broad daylight. When reviewing the film, American critic Judith Crist remarked upon this placing of the horror within such innocuous surroundings, saying that it ‘offers a satisfying sense of sunlight-and-terror’ (quoted in Taylor, 1996: 95). There is something dislocating about presenting the darkness of the countryside during the idyllic daylight of the late spring, and an arresting juxtaposition between the bucolic landscapes of childhood – picnics and holidays and endless summers – and the truly horrendous activities that take place there. The broad daylight cannot save you from the horrors of the dark. This queasy dislocation is echoed by Marc Wilkinson’s superb score, quite rightly regarded as ‘easily among the best composed for a British horror film’ (Rigby, 2015: 200). It’s a dissonant and oddly sickly score that subverts traditional pastoral Early Music into something playfully malevolent.
This directorial decision to film daytime horror is a common signifier of folk horror too. The Blood on Satan’s Claw shares this characteristic with both Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man, and it marks them out as stylistically different to the prevailing taste for British horror films either steeped in the sensibilities of the gothic 19th Century or those contemporary set films that see a youthful cast massacred against a clashing backdrop of acid hues and murky greys.
Taken on their own then, the peculiarities of plotting can be bewildering. However, albeit by accident rather than design, these peculiarities reinforce deliberate stylistic choices to unsettle the viewer by suggesting a dangerous unfamiliarity lurks in the apparent haven of the countryside.
The treatment of Cathy is more troubling. In the original script, her rape and murder happen off-screen, and her body is found later. It was Haggard’s decision to feature it as a specific scene and, as such, the shoot was unplanned until the day of the filming.
It would be difficult to make the case that certain aspects of The Blood on Satan’s Claw were included for anything other than titillation for the audience. Like other studios, Tigon could see the direction British horror was taking, towards a greater degree of explicit violence and a greater degree of sexualised content (usually together in the same scene). The previous year’s Cry of the Banshee (Gordon Hessler, 1970) is a case in point, a rather sleazy film that includes many instances of semi-naked women being abused, objectified or degraded in one way or another. Haggard has acknowledged that these sorts of studio expectations underpinned the sequence where a naked Angel attempts to seduce Reverend Fallowfield.
The rape and murder of Cathy is something else entirely. Ingham asks the question:
‘Why, when Mark Vespers … is murdered (mostly) off-screen, does the death of his sister Cathy merit a lengthy ritual murder-rape that leaves nothing to the imagination, that goes on and on for nearly ten minutes, complete with shots of people in the cult getting off hard on what they’re seeing and Angel Blake licking the murder weapon?’ (Ingham, 2018: 30)
Both murders are prefaced with lengthy sequences to build unease and suspense. Mark is led away to play a game of blind man’s buff, while Cathy’s entrapment takes the form of something like a wedding procession. The suddenness of the attack on Mark – particularly following an apparently innocent game – serves to heighten the viewer’s concern and apprehension when Cathy is lured to the same spot where her brother was killed.
Arguably, there are narrative reasons why Mark’s demise is sudden and Cathy’s is prolonged. Mark’s death acts as a sharp surprise that punctuates a move from the village children playing childish games to later playing more adult games. It also alerts the viewer, once Cathy is put in a similar position, that something awful is about to happen, particularly as the youthful coven are now comfortable with being complicit in murder. Haggard has previously commended Wynne-Simmons’ script for providing five or so key horror set-pieces for him to work with. While the script had not included a rape-murder sequence, Haggard clearly felt this was needed as a set piece. Possibly it was to up the ante following Mark’s murder. Possibly it was a case of dramatic enthusiasm running away with itself on the day of the shoot. Haggard has since reflected that the scene is too strong and he would not shoot it in that way now (Satan’s Claw was only Haggard’s second feature film as a director so possibly it was also a case of a young and eager director wanting to throw everything he could into the moment).
It is perhaps insightful to know that Haggard is an admirer of Ingmar Bergman, and that Bergman’s approach and style – particularly in The Virgin Spring (1960) – heavily influenced his own (Evans-Powell, 2021; 25). The Virgin Spring features the rape and murder of an innocent girl by herdsmen amid the picturesque serenity of Mediaeval rural Sweden. The set-piece of the rape-murder in Bergman’s film is less lurid than Haggard’s but there are striking similarities in the juxtaposition between the bucolic landscape and the horror taking place there, and the corruption and destruction of innocence within nature. Maybe the parallel scene in Satan’s Claw is not a direct homage, but Haggard was attempting to emulate some aspects of the work of a director he held in high esteem.
What is likely the most horrifying element is that we witness children visiting abuse and brutality upon each other. This remains a particularly taboo subject in mainstream cinema. Cathy’s rape and murder are horrific and this is compounded by the fact that it is other children violating her. While deeply disturbing, the rationale behind it was both highly personal and extremely topical to the creatives involved.
Robert Wynne-Simmons had personally experienced mental and physical bullying from the age of 11 that contributed to physical illnesses during his teenage years and that nearly killed him when he was 19. When Wynne-Simmons came to write the script for Satan’s Claw he was 22, so the trauma was still recent, and the film illustrates his fascination for the cruelty the children are capable of inflicting upon each other.
More topically, the country had very recently been shaken by two particularly ghastly murders committed by 11-year-old Mary Bell. Wynne-Simmons and Haggard have both explicitly cited Mary Bell as a formative influence over the development of the film (Taylor, 1996; 88). In 1968, Bell was found guilty of the manslaughter of two toddlers in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Bell had strangled the children and mutilated the body of one of them. The case horrified the nation, as did the reports of Bell’s behaviour: her ghoulish glee in causing harm, her manipulation of people, and her indifference to the suffering she had caused. Mary Bell had a clear influence on the character and behaviour of Angel Blake in the film. Like Mary, Angel is manipulative in her false accusations of assault directed at the Reverend Fallowfield, and revels in the violation of Cathy’s rape and murder. Angel and her actions – the killing of Mark, the rape and murder of Cathy, the attempted seduction of the Curate – mediate the crimes and behaviours of Mary Bell, and pass comment on the intrinsic relationship between childhood innocence and the urge to hurt and destroy.
Like its ‘unholy trinity’ bedfellows, The Blood on Satan’s Claw does not make for easy viewing and suggests that horror and harm lurk where we least expect them: in the tranquil and sun-warmed British countryside, and in the innocent souls of children. In doing so, the film is uncompromising in forcing the viewer to acknowledge the uncomfortable and the unpalatable.
Evans-Powell, David, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, Liverpool University Press/Auteur Publishers, 2021.
Gatiss, Mark, ‘Episode two: Home Counties horror’, A History of Horror, BBC Four, 2010.
Haggard, Piers, commentary, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, Screenbound Productions Ltd Blu-ray release, 2019.
IMDB, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066849/releaseinfo?ref_=ttloc_sa_2, accessed 17.05.21.
Ingham, Howard David, We don’t go back: A watcher’s guide to folk horror, Room 207 Press, 2018.
Scovell, Adam, Folk horror: Hours dreadful and things strange, Auteur Publishing, 2017.
Rigby, Jonathan, English gothic: Classic horror cinema 1897-2015, Signum Books, 2019 (fourth edition).
Taylor, David, ‘Don’t overact with your fingers! The making of Blood on Satan’s Claw’, in Shock: The essential guide to exploitation cinema, Stefan Jaworzyn, Titan Books, 1996.