Fango Flashback: “THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW” (1970)
We are perhaps inherently sympathetic to witches on film. They are, after all, creatures and characters of folklore and horror with the most significant and legitimate real-life counterparts. Those counterparts, aside from putting their faith in something seemingly older and wiser than most all, have been the unjustified targets of horrifying religious and gender-based persecution throughout history—most notoriously in the 17th Century. This weighs on the viewer, informing even films and tales in which witches are practicing magick in the name of some larger darkness, most especially in the type of Tigon British Film Productions pictures dubbed “Folk Horror” where more often than not, those charged with stopping pagan deeds are real bastards. For example: the harrowing, cruel Matthew Hopkins in perhaps the best “Folk Horror” film, WITCHFINDER GENERAL, or even the intensely stuffy Sergeant Howie in Robin Hardy’s classic THE WICKER MAN.
THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW then—the second best of the Tigon films following WITCHFINDER GENERAL—proves a most interesting and conflicting watch. Set in that lovely, if harsh, landscape of 17th century rural England, Piers Haggard’s film pits a village against a growing evil within their youth, unleashed by one young man’s discovery of a deformed skull. For a cinematic countryside town in the 1600s however, the folks of THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW are actually fairly forward thinking, trying to do away with superstition and fears of the unknown. When Ralph, the boy who happens upon the beastly skull, informs the local judge (Patrick Wymark) of his discovery he’s mostly dismissed. Even after the darkness begins to spread, as one young lady goes mad (and sports a claw that really only the audience sees) and her fiancé lops off his own hand in the aftermath, the judge removes himself from the village and film for thirty minutes or so.
While he’s away, the teenagers throw their village into an uproar, capturing those who are (un)lucky enough to bear Satan’s skin—an unsettling patch of fur that grows on the body—and sacrifice them so that their dark lord may materialize as a full satanic beast. The kids are eerie and merciless to their peers and elders, with their leader Angel Blake (Linda Hayden, possessing an enchanting hold not dissimilar to Britt Ekland in THE WICKER MAN) even attempting to frame a priest. Again, the town is so steadfast against superstition, or maybe in denial, that the squire would rather believe the priest a lecherous murderer than in the existence of supernatural malevolence.
By all accounts, and differing from films of a similar nature, the growing cult in the ruined church on the outskirts of town deserves to be stopped. Yet, when a woman the audience sees at a ritual (and who later full on pledges allegiance to Satan) is thrown into a body of water to see if she’ll sink, it’s wince-inducing. Could it be the hazy 60s filter and occult interests informing the period piece? Could it be the mental image of the historical practice on undeserving victims? What of our own fetishes as horror fans, many of whom undoubtedly love the black magick aesthetic? In 1970’s CRY OF THE BANSHEE, a cult operating in a crypt also offer their services in the name of the Devil, but we only see them practice evil on their oppressors after Vincent Price’s Lord Charles Whitman kills two of their young brethren. Even in THE WICKER MAN, they sacrifice Howie in the name of crops rather than a pure evil.
It feels as if THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW is only allowed to become the judge’s film in its final moments. Angel Blake’s features may grow ever harsher (dig those dark eyebrows), but she remains engrossing and beautiful (even when her outright rejection of a girl who’s lost her Satan skin is harsh, and she’s accompanied by distressing score). When the final black mass gets underway, the judge can only become a hero a) once we see the oddly creepy Satanic beast in full and b) with cinematic technique and aesthetic as cool as black magick: the freeze frame. Armed with a massive, in-God’s-name sword and more importantly, having refuted the benefit of the doubt, Patrick Wymark is rewarded with something of a “get ready” still shot before he rains down on the evildoers and the hell beast they’ve conjured up.
Speaking of Folk Horror, FANGORIA is co-presenting the British Invasion Night at Los Angeles’ Beyond Fest on Friday, October 18 at the Aero Theatere in Santa Monica. The night will entail a double feature of two brand new, acclaimed British horror films: THE BORDERLANDS and Ben Wheatley’s highly anticipated A FIELD IN ENGLAND. Our Rebekah McKendry will also be on hand to moderate a discussion with actor Gordon Kennedy, BORDERLANDS producer Jen Handorf and FrightFest curator Paul McEvoy. Tickets and info here.