50 years ago this week, Tigon Pictures released a richly atmospheric, devilishly spooky, and unsung piece of British Folk horror titled The Blood on Satan's Claw. This moody slow-burn tale of occult terror, set in 17th Century England, is considered by some to be part of an unofficial folk horror trilogy, wedged between Witchfinder General (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973). It's less known and revered than those 2 spooky cult flicks, but 50 years after its release isn't too late to celebrate the unshakably nightmarish mood of this dark arts romp about a village overcome by witch hysteria, now faced with a demonic force that's turning their children into furry, false God-worshipping killers. It's perhaps the most Hammer film Hammer never made.
The film opens with Ralph (Barry Andrews), ploughing fields along the sprawling English countryside, as he's done humbly for years, when he discovers crows surrounding a raised patch of soil. Upon investigation, he discovers a human head in the ground - infested with worms, and still holding onto patches of what appear to be fur or feathers.
He brings his concern to The Judge (Patrick Wymark,) who doesn't take this disturbing discovery seriously, writing it off as an animal. When The Judge takes to the field to see the skull for himself, it's nowhere to be found.
Soon, matters in the village get unexplainably more strange. A woman sent up to sleep in an attic by her fiance's disapproving family falls into hysteria. Her screams fill the house, and nobody bothers to investigate. Instead they merely barricade her in the room, believing her to be a witch. Later when she's finally being led out of the home, delusioned and almost soulless, her man notices her one hand seems to have turned into a bird claw.
Meanwhile, murders are taking place across the village, and patches of fur are appearing on people's bodies. The Judge, who was initially skeptical, has no choice but to figure out and destroy whatever demonic nonsense is going down in his tiny Christian utopia. His main partner in the hunt, Angel Blake (Linda Hayden,) is a pretty blonde teenager who, unknown to The Judge, has already committed her service to Satan. Angel roams the woods with other youngsters, luring unsuspecting innocent kids into demonic rituals.
The Judge and well-meaning Christian villagers who aren't afraid to stand up to Satan are tasked with putting an end to the Pagan practices that are brainwashing locals and branding them with The Skin Of Satan.
The Blood On Satan's Claw is a gorgeous, weird little British chiller that's so memorably moody and marvelously macabre that I'm writing about it in the year 2021. Director Piers Haggard, cinematographer Dick Bush, and Mark Wilkinson (who did the score) successfully work together to spin a successfully hellish story that's as unnerving in feel as it is visually spectacular; an otherworldly sort of serene, so perfect it's eerie.
The camera spends a bit of time on the ground, making the audience feel as though they're plotted in the soil, looking up at evil unfolding and hysteria spreading. Picturesque shots of the British countryside spread false hope - there couldn't possibly be Satanic activity afoot in a village so lush and quaint. Yet the slow churn, dreamy depictions of age-old terror, and quick glimpses of human-led violence let you know that sickness is around and only worsening.
What works especially well in creating an eerie aura is the color of The Blood On Satan's Claw. Some use the term "Daylight Horror" for horror flicks throughout which terror takes place during sunny daytime. That's applicable here, as everything goes down without a moonlit mood. Instead of moody nighttime terror, Haggard leads us into occult hell with an overcast daytime sky. The film is light, but not bright. A lack of vibrant color in the beautiful fields and cozy village makes for a phenomenally grim feel of foreboding.
An orchestral score from Wilkinson carries epic suspense, with heavy strings lending to eeriness amidst creepish building, and jolts complementing the moments of shock. The Blood On Satan's Clawhas an unrelentingly tense sound to match its dark and dour package.
While the film's fright falters towards the end, Haggard mostly leaves the face of evil to our imagination, which feels like the right finishing touch for a crawling creeper of horror folklore. The room for guessing we're left with at the finale adds to the creepiness, and there's plenty of legitimate fright before the final scene for horror fanatics who require haunting imagery.
In one particular scene, angelic in appearance Angel leads a poor innocent girl to her ritualistic rape. A crowd of teens assist in the act and cheer on her silent but grinning rapist. The scene isn't overly long nor graphic, which I greatly appreciate, but it's shot so expertly that it really digs beneath the skin; more so than similar scenes in other films. It doesn't feel slimy or exploitative. Haggard evidently includes it purely for the creep factor, as it's quick, terrifying, and weirdly unforgettable without coming off as disgusting.
Angel, who controls her fellow village teens with a strangely sexual allure and unspoken power, is a spellbinding villain, embodying every bit of evil you didn't think a pretty little gal could. Linda Hayden is the confident, mysterious force behind Angel, maintaining an appearance of indifference towards the Hell she's helping to orchestrate. Hayden's scary and commanding, but seemingly innocent when manipulation is called for. Angel's counterpart, The Judge, played by Patrick Wyman, is an equally engaging character; a hero who doesn't quite feel like a hero. The Judge is a man who initially comes off as unapproachable, intolerant, and above the very real evil he writes off as nonsense. He's soon leading the virtuous crusade against Satan, and you're on the fence about even hopping aboard with him. The Judge is a religious fanatic of the Christian variety, which is difficult to love, but when he's protecting his village against Satan himself, it's hard not to like the Pagan-hating leader.
With interesting performances, an immersive spine-chilling score, fantastic cinematography, and spurts of petrifying nightmare material, The Blood On Satan's Claw is a bit of old folksy horror that warrants a watch from all genre fans - particularly the 70s horror lovers and those partial to fetid atmosphere. Cult rituals. Murderous kids. Witch paranoia. It's all going down across a pastoral landscape, dripping with fiendish feel. This may not be the most frightening flick, though it's genuinely unnerving, and it might not carry endlessly rewatchable value, but the mood and a scene or 2 will surely stick with you. Now that it's 50 years old, The Blood On Satan's Clawis finally ready for a cult fanbase, and possibly the mark of Great British Horror.