After the huge success of 1967’s WITCHFINDER GENERAL it was unsurprising that both companies involved in its production were keen to cash in on the success of that movie, as well as copycat efforts like Michael Armstrong’s MARK OF THE DEVIL. Both follow-ups materialised around the same time. AIP’s CRY OF THE BANSHEE was an incoherent sadistic British horror picture filled with unnecessary nudity and scenes of violence that as a whole didn’t really work. Oddly enough, Tigon’s BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW could be described in exactly the same way, but somehow it managed to be a completely different, far more unsettling affair.
We’re in freezing gloomy seventeenth century England, with none of the fake charm, cosiness or glamour redolent of Hollywood’s depiction of the period. Ralph Gower’s plough turns up something nasty in a field – bits of bones, fur and a skull with one very blue eye (and attached worm). It disappears, leaving Patrick Wymark’s Judge (a finely balanced performance with just the right amount of veiled drunken threat behind a scary headmasterly authoritiveness) to doubt its existence. Sexy Angel Blake (Linda Hayden) finds the claw of the title and soon the children of the community are growing bits of nasty-looking fur on them as the thing (it’s never made clear exactly what it is) tries to resurrect itself. Other odd things happen too – young Peter brings his new bride Rosalind back to his aunt’s farmhouse only for her to be driven insane in the attic by something we never get to see. When Peter goes up there he falls asleep only to be attacked by his own hand, now covered with the same fur, which he hacks off. Peter’s aunt disappears halfway through the film never to be seen again, and as the film becomes increasingly nasty and outrageous (the seduction of the village priest in his church by a naked Hayden, the horrifying rape and murder of Wendy Padbury) a relentless sense of downbeat dread drives the film towards it conclusion, where the creature is finally vanquished by Wymark’s sword.
A fascinating mixture of the diabolically nasty and the diabolically daft, some of BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW’s lapses in logic can be attributed to the fact that it was originally planned as a three part anthology movie, and vestiges of all three stories remain in the final script. The fact that it still works can be put down to the conviction with which the movie’s properly unpleasant central conceit is played out. The idea of some horrible rotting thing regrowing parts of itself on children who are then willing to have them hacked off to allow it to be put back together is brilliantly horrible and the gloominess and isolation evinced by the landscape and period are just perfect for such a story. Attempted solutions are as unpleasant as the evil itself. Cutting the skin from a girl’s leg is considered pointless as it will just regrow but the local doctor goes ahead and does it anyway, without any anaesthetic. Wymark’s judge explains that the evil has to be allowed to take hold and possess enough children before he will be able to destroy it – a remarkable position for the ‘force for good’ to take in any horror film, and perhaps one we might only ever see in a film from the early 1970s. It’s very easy to pull BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW to pieces and make fun of it, not least because one can see the hand of producer Tony Tenser in some of the more exploitation-orientated scenes – indeed, towards the end of the film a girl is thrown in the river to be ‘swum’ on suspicion of being a witch apparently because a similar scene in WITCHFINDER GENERAL had gone down well with audiences. It doesn't make an awful lot of sense that Satan (or whatever it is) would grow its legs last, but the image (and sound) of the 'hopping fiend' is very scary indeed. In fact no matter how cobbled together, random and inexplicable much of the film is, there’s no doubt that it’s disturbing, unsettling and at times properly horrifying. Well done Tigon – I still can't quite work out how you managed it.