Saturday, December 5, 2020

The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)

          Generated by the short-lived company Tigon British Film Productions, The Blood on Satan’s Claw is something of a companion piece to an earlier Tigon production, 1968’s Witchfinder General. One could also draw a line connecting both of these pictures to 1973’s The Wicker Man. All three movies juxtapose supernatural topics with realistic rural settings, thus providing early examples of the “folk horror” style presently in vogue thanks to such pictures as Midsommar (2019) and The Witch (2015). When these movies click, as is the case with The Blood on Satan’s Claw, ideas that might seem cartoonish in other contexts land with visceral impact because they’re grounded with believable characterizations and environments. Excepting some sketchy makeup FX, it’s hard to dismiss The Blood on Satan’s Claw as mere escapism, and that’s a hallmark of the whole “folk horror” genre.
          Set in 18th-century England, the picture begins with a simple farmer discovering a deformed corpse and summoning a snobbish judge (Patrick Wymark) to examine what the farmer describes as the remains of a “fiend.” Yet by the time the judge is brought to the spot where the corpse was found, the remains have disappeared. So begins a strange series of events bedeviling a small, superstitious village. Among other disturbing occurences, the judge watches his future daughter-in-law succumb to a sort of possession—she even manifests a claw-tipped atrocity in place of one of her hands. As instances of hallucinations, self-mutilation, and uncharacteristic behavior grow in number, the judge begins to accept the grim possibility that evil has taken control of his neighbors, prompting a call for help from outside authorities. Eventually, provocative teenager Angel Blake (Linda Hayden) becomes the nexus of the village’s problems when her transgressions escalate from the sinful (trying to seduce a priest) to the homicidal. By far the most unnerving aspect of film is a trope of Angel leading local children in “games” that involve brutalizing victims for amusement—or perhaps for the pleasure of a master from another realm.
          One could easily argue that director Piers Haggard and screenwriter Robert Wynne-Simmons misstepped during the climax, which shifts from creepily ambiguous to drably literal, and the makeup FX in this sequence are regrettable. Still, most of what unspools prior to the climax boasts admirable tension and texture. The Blood on Satan’s Claw is filled with great faces, literate dialogue, and vivid locations, all of which create a useful foundation for the whole cinematic experience. And while The Blood on Satan’s Claw is not on par with Witchfinder General—among other shortcomings, one longs for a compelling central character—Satan’s Claw provides a serious-minded alternative to the often silly qualities of mainstream British horror from the same period, notably films from Amicus and Hammer. After all, baked into the gore and suspense of The Blood on Satan’s Claw is a parable about the ease with which bad ideas take root in susceptible minds.

The Blood on Satan’s Claw: GROOVY