Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Blood On Satan's Claw - But Where Are Satan's Legs?

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.


  1. I got it after reading a lot about it. And it didn´t dissapoint.

    But I think you are too harsh on CRY. There is lot to criticise as some key elements just don´t work, but in its portrait of sex and violence it tries to be as non-exploiative as it can. The fights don´t look choreographed but more like real life brawls, the nudity casual and as un-erotic as the could make it. If you compare it with the slick and staged naughty bits in the Hammer movies it looks odd.

    Of course CLAW is the better movie and marvelously grim.

  2. Hi Andy! It's always good to see a movie defended that hasn't worked for me. I have to admit that I thought the nudity and violence in CRY OF THE BANSHEE was trying to be WITCHFINDER GENERAL - style exploitative. I agree the fights were more realistic, but I think the torture and rape scenes are there for exploitation value. I don't doubt Gordon Hessler was trying to 'do something different' with what he was assigned. Oddly enough we rewatched it just before I wrote my BLOOD review. It must be about the third time I've watched CRY and I still thought it was a pretty sleazy version of its type, but part of the problem of course is that the only films you can really compare it to are WITCHFINDER GENERAL and BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW, both of which work much better. I've only seen a cut version of Michael Armstrong's MARK OF THE DEVIL so I don't really feel qualified to comment on that or use it as direct comparison!

  3. Yeah wathced this movie for the first time on DVD in 2008. Excellent movie.

    Interestingly enough I also watched at the same time a VHS of Quatermass Conclusion. Also directed by Piers Haggard. Great director.

  4. I first saw this film back in 1996 when I just happened on a late night broadcast on Channel 4. Despite owning the old Alan Frank and Denis Gifford books, it had never really caught my attention and I came to it with no preconceptions.

    What really appealed to me on that first viewing was the various elements that combined to give what I think is a very authentic evocation of period for a low budget 1970s horror film. You have the costumes, not least the judge’s plumed hat and his lovely dressing gown (or is it a roquelaure? Whatever it is I want one!), the scenery, the dialogue, the interiors, and the general feel for occult lore that pervades the whole film as well as a toast to the Old Pretender.

    It all creates an atmosphere that puts me in mind of those old woodcuts from seventeenth century chapbooks such as you find in that excellent Peter Haining anthology, “The Necromancers” or John Ashton’s “The Devil in Britain and America”.

    Then you throw in the creepiness; to name a few random examples you've got that fur pouch, the chanting, the “deform’d anatomy” itself, the face in that old volume, that pair of toothless old biddies (what’s their story?), all of which and more are set off by a truly unsettling score.

    Yes, the film has its drawbacks, not least the advanced years of some of the “children”, but they’re easily outweighed by the merits of the overall production.

    I could ramble on and on about this film, but I’ll end up writing a much longer “comment” than the original review so I’d better shut up!

  5. Endlessly watchable, isn't it? I've tried to hold off buying the Blu-ray as I already have two versions of this, but I'm sure I'll give in eventually!