The Blood on Satan's Claw
Andy Paciorek reviews Devil’s Advocates: The Blood on Satan’s Claw by David Evans-Powell, a new entry in Auteur Publishing’s series of horror film studies...
Possibly the least well-known of the three films that Mark Gatiss and Jonathan Rigby selected to illustrate examples of British Folk Horror in the ‘Home Counties Horror’ episode of the 2010 BBC documentary series A History of Horror (the others being The Wicker Man (UK, Robin Hardy, 1973) and Witchfinder General (UK, Michael Reeves, 1968)), and possibly the most controversial, The Blood On Satan’s Claw is now featured in Auteur Publishing’s Devil’s Advocates series of horror film study books.
In this volume, David Evans-Powell casts his eye upon the 1971 cult classic, directed by Piers Haggard and scripted by Robert Wynne-Simmons. For those who have seen it, which still seems relatively few compared to numerous other British horror films, it is a divisive film. There are those that abjectly loathe it and those who are beguiled by it; I belong to the latter camp. That is not to say I do not understand the problems some viewers have with it, because (in many cases) those problems relate to a certain scene. The scene in question is the rape and murder of a teenage girl at the hands of other teenagers – not strangers, however, but her friends and classmates. This scene, if left unmentioned, is an elephant in the room – there is a lot more to The Blood on Satan’s Claw than this, as Evans-Powell’s book illustrates splendidly – but let’s address this matter first.
Placed in context, this grim scenario unfolds after a ploughman unearths some strange bestial body parts in a field. Falling into the hands of the local teenagers, these grisly relics begin to have a profound effect upon the youth of this bucolic 18th Century village, and particularly upon a girl by the name of Angel Blake (played by Linda Hayden), who develops into a priestess figure as the malign influence of the found body parts transforms the village juveniles into a devil-worshipping cult. The influence of the claws and fur is not merely subliminal, however, but physical: a maleficent entity uses the villagers’ own flesh to grow further body parts so that it may again take a whole corporeal form. Angel Blake’s first on-screen journey into sin comes as she sheds her shift and attempts to seduce the village curate (the nudity in this scene has also raised some controversy, as although the actress was 17 years old at the time, it is suggested that the age of the character was younger). After he fights temptation and spurns her advances, Angel Blake accuses the holy man of rape. Such is her perceived innocence within the village that these charges are readily believed, and the priest is seized. But she has already been tainted by unholiness; offscreen a young lad Mark (Robin Davies) has been murdered. Worse still, however, is to come.
In The Blood on Satan’s Claw’s most notorious scene, Mark’s sister Cathy (played by Wendy Padbury, who was known to TV viewers of the time as an earlier companion character, Zoe Heriot, in the BBC’s long-running sci-fi show Doctor Who) is lured away by some teenage boys to play a game. She is then held down by several teenagers and raped, before being killed with shears by Angel Blake.
Whilst the atrocity of rape had been featured in films before, such as Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (Sweden, 1960) (a film which would influence the 1970’s horror subgenre of rape-revenge movies like The Last House on the Left (US, Wes Craven, 1972) and I Spit on Your Grave (US, Meir Zarchi, 1978)), and was implied in earlier horror films such as Hammer’s The Curse of the Werewolf (UK, Terence Fisher, 1961) and Tigon’s Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw depicted the crime unrelentingly. Also a Tigon film, neither The Blood on Satan’s Claw nor Witchfinder General share the camp gothic or fun entertainment value of Hammer’s output; they are dark, heavy films, and their sexual elements are likewise not the titillating bodice-heaving of Hammer horror. Cathy’s grim fate is watched by leering, aroused kids and also, unsettlingly, a pair of gleeful old folk. We the viewers are made to feel like voyeurs to this cruel event, and it feels disturbing. It is meant to feel disturbing – that is the whole point.
For a long time already in film and TV, onscreen murder had become throwaway – audiences desensitised to the loss of life – and it had little power left to shock or disturb as it should. Instead, this scenario unfolds to show the true corruption of the youth here, and to make the audience feel it too. As Evans-Powell quotes within the book, John Trevelyan of the British Board of Film Censorship stated ‘… it’s sex and violence. You can have sex. That’s alright. Violence is alright. But sex and violence, this is what we have to think carefully about.’
In later years, the film’s creators have considered that perhaps they took the scene too far; but had they not, would The Blood on Satan’s Claw have lost a certain point of power? There is – as said before – of course much more to the film than this scene alone, but it is this scene which, beyond all others, illustrates the corruption of evil. Depiction of rape is also a delicate matter, but whilst ‘exploitation’ films of the era may have projected an anti-rape stance through the revenge that followed, they could (in some instances) be regarded as salacious in depiction. Anyone aroused by the brutality inflicted upon Cathy Vespers in The Blood on Satan’s Claw surely already has something seriously wrong with them.
For those who have tragically experienced a violent sexual assault in their own lives, the scene could obviously be very distressing indeed, but does that mean films should not depict such atrocities? Or – if they should – what is an acceptable presentation of it? The issue is a thorny one. The Blood on Satan’s Claw is a dark, disturbing film, depicting dark, disturbing events – whether the makers go too far in depiction here is a quandary and one that may just remain eternally a matter of individual opinion. Evans-Powell tackles this thorny topic with great level and measure, and places it amongst his many other considerations of the film, onto which we may now move.
The chapter headings in Evans-Powell’s book read as follows – ‘Synopsis’ – ‘Introduction’ – ‘Production and Reception’ – ‘A Green (Un)Pleasant Land’ – ‘Nature and Civilisation’ – ‘The Fiend and Its Followers’ – ‘Agents of Order’ – ‘Anarchy in the UK’ – ‘Bibliography’. As can be seen, the author turns his attention from the technical aspects of the movie to its historical precedents and influences, and then onto its relevance at the time of its release. It is an intriguing journey and one very well-written. The matter of film study and review can sometimes come across as too academic and dry, or too self-indulgent, saying more about the reviewer than the art under review, but Evans-Powell falls into neither of these traps. It is a fluid, informative and efficiently communicative read.
In ‘A Green (Un)Pleasant Land’ and ‘Nature and Civilisation’, Evans-Powell explores the setting of the demonic drama, rising from the initial low shot looking up from the dirt of a ploughed field, and moving in time to the lives and landscape of a rural 18th Century village. A place where the majority are not wealthy but are given some education – if only in scripture. A place where life cannot be particularly easy for most but comes across as simple and healthy – at least until forgotten horrors are unearthed in the furrows. The area is beautiful and gently sylvan, but as the director Haggard states: ‘There is a darkness in the landscape’. This is felt palpably in The Blood on Satan’s Claw – there is an eeriness, a strangeness that pervades the entire film. Evans-Powell notes that the uncanny undercurrent of the English countryside continues to be seen on screen in works such as the gallows humour TV show The League of Gentlemen (BBC, 1999-2002) (whose creators, including Mark Gatiss, count The Blood on Satan’s Claw as an inspiration) and, in a gentler fashion, Mackenzie Crook’s Detectorists (BBC, 2014-2017). Another important factor in the unsettling, eerie nature of The Blood on Satan’s Claw, recognised by Evans-Powell, is the excellent soundtrack by composer Marc Wilkinson.
In ‘Agents of Order’, Evans-Powell looks at the characters in the film who have been influenced to some lesser or higher degree by the Age of Enlightenment – the Squire, the Curate, the Doctor, and – most prominently – the Judge. Whilst the first three still cling to varying elements of superstition and religiosity, the curate and the doctor are men of some learning; the Judge (played by Patrick Wymark) is initially somewhat sceptical towards superstition, but his apparent Catholicism breaks through as he takes charge to cut a swathe through the evil corruption of the children and the manifesting demon (who despite the film’s title, and its alternative Satan’s Skin, is not actually Satan or The Devil as such, but from evocations uttered appears to be the biblical Behemoth). The Judge, however, allows this fiend a deliberate chance to develop, regardless of the murder and debauchment caused. Evans-Powell’s considerations of these figures adds depth to the book, but of course, great attention is also given to Angel Blake and her acolytes.
In ‘Anarchy in the UK’, the author uses a wider lens in looking at contemporary events that influenced the story of The Blood on Satan’s Claw. He looks at how the Hippy dream went sour, how the counterculture of the ‘Back to the Land’ communes and (mostly youth) resistance to the status quo did not develop into a golden Age of Aquarius, but after a few short years fizzled out, or crashed more dramatically and darkly. One of the events that saw winter storms gather over the prolonged summer of love occurred not in the rolling meadows of England but under the heat of Californian skies. Charles Manson’s Family and the ensuing Tate–LaBianca murders in 1969 Los Angeles provided a real-life illustration of the power of manipulation, and the grim consequences of devotion to a death cult. Another event that influenced The Blood on Satan’s Claw took place in Britain, not in the timeless glades of Oxfordshire, but in the urban West End of Newcastle upon Tyne. The tragic tale in question was the murder in 1968 of four-year-old Martin Brown and three-year-old Brian Howe. Tragically, child murders are not uncommon, but what makes this case prominent in the gruesome annals of infanticide is that the murderer in this instance was a child herself – a girl named Mary Bell, who was aged only ten at the time of the first killing. This weird and disturbing episode of true crime served as an inspiration to the script of The Blood On Satan’s Claw: a prime example of the corruption of youth.
Whilst this book is released under an imprint of Liverpool University Press, Evans-Powell’s delivery gives it greater appeal. Not just for students and scholars, it is accessible, and of interest to wider fans (and even detractors) of The Blood on Satan’s Claw – a film which, although not entirely devoid of flaws (in my opinion it would be better had the fiend itself not be seen outright, but just vaguely depicted in shadows – and for the ending to have been drawn out longer, as it seems a tad rushed), is an important piece of both folk horror and British film history and, indeed, a disturbingly mesmeric artistic creation. An important addition to the Devil’s Advocates catalogue, and one concisely and extremely well provided by its author.
Devil’s Advocates: The Blood on Satan’s Claw by David Evans-Powell is available to purchase by clicking the image below…