The Blood on Satan’s Claw, a 1971 horror melodrama from English genre studio Tigon, lacks the moral underpinnings of Michael Reeves’ cautionary classic Witchfinder General but resembles it in setting and atmosphere. Where Witchfinder General was all about the villainous official played by Vincent Price who saw witchcraft in every corner – or, cynically, used accusations of witchery to advance his own personal and political aspirations – The Blood on Satan’s Claw clarifies the relationship between wickedness and virtue by showing how evil, in the guise of rebellious children and especially a seductive teenager, can be vanquished by vigilance and bravery on the part of Christian men. It’s the kind of movie where the cranky old judge who ducks out of town at the first signs of a supernatural dust-up returns in the final reel, empowered to vanquish the devil himself.
If The Blood on Satan’s Claw is a fundamentally conservative film, it’s pretty vigorous in depicting Satan’s foul mischief. It’s set in and around a small village in the English countryside, where young plowboy Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews) is spooked when he digs up the skeletal remains – bones, fur — of what looks like an odd human-animal hybrid on the farm of Mistress Banham (Avice Landon). He reports his weird finding to a local judge (Patrick Wymark) staying on the property who investigates but more or less dismisses the claim as local superstition. The judge is the kind of guy who drinks a sarcastic toast to the exiled Catholic non-King James III – the reference seems to date the story to the early 18th century, not, as some sources have it, the 17th century – and declares, “Witchcraft is dead and discredited,” before taking a powder and running off to London to do some further research. In his absence, a kind of infection spreads among the village children — not to mention a few of the elderly — who, having passed around a furry claw, become cultish, mischievous, and violent.
In one of the film’s signature scenes, the youngsters’ leader, the bewitching blonde teenager Angel Blake (Linda Hayden), tries seducing Reverend Fallowfield (Anthony Ainley) by stripping nude in his church. His reaction is one of momentary arousal followed by disdain and disappointment. In other words, he behaves honorably for a decent man of the cloth faced with potent temptation. (His response is likely more virtuous than any given audience member’s.) Later on, Ralph rescues a woman (Michele Dotrice) who has been chased into the woods, captured, and thrown into the water by a mob bent on executing her as a witch. The mother of a murdered girl takes the woman in as she would her on daughter but, in a sly reversal, it turns out it might have been a better idea to let her be drowned. She has a patch of hairy flesh on one leg that marks her as one of Angel’s minions – one of the devoted cultists who will, as their bodies transform, help the devil himself realize full physical stature.
On the evidence, director Piers Haggard and co-writer Robert Wynne-Simmons have no interest here in casting aspersions on the local authority figures, subverting the power structure, condemning the persecution of innocents, or anything like that. In this film, a witch is a witch and that’s that. Sexuality is tied to deviltry, and disrespectful children may be the most frightening kind of demon. Catholic beliefs and values are a virtue, in part because they keep you on your toes. The old judge is not just blinkered by his own skepticism, but may also be maintaining a long-standing romantic relationship with Banham. Of course, it’s her house into which Satan first secretes himself – possessing a hapless farmer’s daughter her nephew, Peter (Simon Williams), brings home as his betrothed — so perhaps that relationship extended the devil an invitation. Called on for a professional opinion when Banham falls ill, the family doctor (Howard Goorney) immediately tweaks to the supernatural influence. “You come from the city,” he scolds the disbelieving judge. “You cannot know the ways of the country.”
Country living soon incorporates rape, casual murder, and ritual sacrifice, as Angel’s influence drives her callow Mansonites to ever-more-depraved extremes. The Blood on Satan’s Claw is not just an exploitation-in-the-English-countryside vehicle in the Hammer horror tradition, or an example of the demonic-possession subgenre that was enjoying a fruitful run-up to The Exorcist, but also a member of the evil-youth sub-genre — I’m thinking of Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen and also The Bad Seed, etc. (One of the subjects is here is the ability of mischievous youngsters to make their elders decidedly uncomfortable.) The proceedings grow more lurid as the story develops, climaxing at a nighttime bacchanal juiced up with an exotic dancer and a fleeting appearance by Satan himself.
OK, sounds great, right? Well, there are a couple of problems. For one thing, the tone of general piousness is a poor match for the sex and violence on display. (The censored versions that have generally been available in the U.S. might seem less hypocritical in their approach, but also a lot less entertaining and/or disturbing, depending on your mood.) For another, the screenplay feels like a patchwork job, working up a decent head of steam in one direction only to switch gears completely and head off somewhere else. After being established as a major figure, the judge abruptly disappears from the film for what feels like the bulk of its running time, and a grievously injured Mistress Banham vanishes in similarly unexplained fashion. By the time the accused witch shows up to kick off the final act, in an episode that feels dissociated from anything that came before, viewers might feel like they’ve arrived in a different movie entirely. And, of course, there’s the fact that modestly budgeted period pieces set in the English countryside often have this fim’s ersatz thou-and-thine feel, as everyone involved strives a little too mightily to keep a straight face simultaneously with the semblance of authenticity.
But there is a terrific creepiness to the film, especially in its relatively calm first third. Several of the performances are strong, the photography evocative (looking up Dick Bush’s IMDb resumé reminds me that I’ve wanted to see Twins of Evil since I was about 13 years old, for obvious reasons), and the story an entertaining diversion. The women are beautiful, though their characters generally meet bad ends, and Hayden in particular was able to parlay her role into success as a minor genre icon. Horror fans, especially those with a fondness for this sort of thing, will doubtless get a kick out of it. It’s not just an enjoyable chiller with sex, violence, costume drama, and some amusing hairstyles, but also a dramatization — using the abolition of Catholic royalty from the English throne as a historical marker — of the tension between reason and superstition, between modern science and the long, regularly irresistible history of mythology. B
The version I saw was shown on the U.S. cable channel TCM, and is apparently complete and in good condition. The film is not currently available in the U.S., but is available on DVD and Blu-ray elsewhere.