Starring: Patrick Wymark, Linda Hayden, Barry Andrews
In 17th century England, a man accidentally digs up a strange skull in a field. He contacts a local judge for help, but by then the skull has disappeared and a number of unusual occurrences take place in the village. A young woman goes mad, people begin sprouting claws, and many of the local children begin to behave very oddly, turning away from the pastor and his Christian teachings. Their group, led by a lovely young woman named Angel, begins targeting and killing non-believers. The judge is called back to deal with the supernatural evil that has gripped the town.
For my money, this is the single best film from Tigon British Film Productions, though I'm sure plenty of people will argue that Witchfinder General is superior. But, as I've said before, this smaller competitor to Hammer and Amicus have charmed me so much over the years, because they always sort of went their own way and did their own thing, often with mixed results — but they were never boring (hmn, maybe The Body Stealers has its moments). Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) is an example of this creativity and stubbornly independent streak working out, and it represents some of the strongest satanic horror from that, or any, period. A blend of horror, exploitation, satanic cults, killer kids, religious repression, and Gothic moodiness, Blood on Satan’s Claw deserves far more recognition.
This is an excellent collaboration between first time director Piers Haggard (who would go on to helm the fucking bonkers Venom and the Quatermass mini-series) and prolific cinematographer Dick Bush, who regularly worked with Hammer studios and director Ken Russell. The tense, rapid pace, claustrophobic shots of the lovely English countryside, and careful mix of sex, scares, and violence make this one of the best British films of the ‘70s. Though Blood on Satan’s Claw has some silly and campy moments, it is a genuinely creepy film and is one of the best examples of the British pagan horror subgenre. Aside from some wonderful performances, the cinematography and score are some of the finest from this era of horror. The utter weirdness, weirdness in the definition “relating to, or suggestive of the preternatural or supernatural,” is one of the film’s strongest points and it thankfully doesn’t fall back on a rational explanation.
Linda Hayden (Taste the Blood of Dracula, Madhouse) absolutely steals the film and gives a wonderfully sexy performance and the ringleader of the satanic gang. Aside from Hayden, there are a number of other familiar faces here: Patrick Wymark (The Skull), James Hayter (The Horror of Frankenstein), Michele Dotrice (And Soon the Darkness), Barry Andrews (Dracula Has Risen From The Grave), Tamara Unstinov (Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb), and others, with many of the actors appearing in Hammer and Amicus horror films and episodes of Doctor Who.
There are some issues with the plot, due to the fact that this was originally intended to be an anthology film. The stories were woven together seemingly at the last minute and some of the characters can be difficult to keep track of. The weakest link is the final confrontation with the judge, who deserved to be a more developed character. After the careful subtlety exercised throughout most of the film, the conclusion that involved sword fighting and what appears to be a papier-mâché demon are unfortunate at best. The dialogue and accents are often annoying and overwrought, but the powerful atmosphere and eeriness overcomes this. Though the film is occasionally over the top, there are some genuinely terrifying scenes that push taboo lines much harder than other horror movies from the period, such as scenes of a young girl’s ritualized rape and murder.
There are a number of very nice extras that make this Blu-ray superior to previous releases. There’s a brand new 2012 interview with director Piers Haggard, a featurette about Linda Hayden, An Angel for Satan, and also included is the excellent 2004 making-of documentary, Touching the Devil, which came with the previous DVD release. The two audio commentary tracks are well worth listening to and make this release worth picking up for all fans of ‘70s horror. The first track is with director Haggard, star Hayden, and write Robert Wynne-Simmons. The second track, my favorite thing about this release, includes commentary from horror lover, Doctor Who writer, and Sherlock creator Mark Gatiss, along with Jeremy Dyson and Reece Sheersmith, his costars from League of Gentlemen. Gatiss previously discussed Blood on Satan’s Claw alongside Wicker Man and Witchfinder General in his excellent documentary A History of Horror. Finally, there’s a theatrical trailer and a stills gallery.
Though it has some flaws, Blood on Satan’s Claw is one of the finest rural/satanic horror films of the ‘70s and deserves to be seen by a much wider audience. I’m not sure why it mostly faded into obscurity, but it should be known alongside the only slightly superior Wicker Man and Tigon’s other masterpiece of witchcraft and pastoral repression, Witchfinder General.