A monstrous skeleton is unearthed in a recently-plowed field, triggering a series of strange occurrences in a sleepy English village. People experience visions of a hairy, clawed hand; a young woman is driven screaming mad with terror; and nymphet Angel Blake recruits the sons and daughters of the town into her black magic coven. An outbreak of assault, rape and murder follows, and an ill-humored judge is tasked with stamping out the evil that threatens to destroy the community.
"Blood on Satan's Claw" wears its influences proudly, and does a fine job of incorporating a number of British horror tropes into its storyline. Tonally, it's very similar to the doom and gloom classic "Witchfinder General"--deadly serious and steeped in historical reality. Set in the same civil-war-torn political landscape of Seventeenth Century England, "Blood on Satan's Claw" focuses its attention on generational conflict and does away with many of the ambiguities that make "Witchfinder General" such a compelling and uncomfortable film to watch (more about this later). In "Blood on Satan's Claw," the Devil is a real and confirmed threat who is ultimately defeated by the forces of the Protestant Christian status quo. Satan is able to get a foothold in the community through the young people, who have made a habit of disobeying their elders and challenging societal conventions. The very first time we meet one of the young villagers, he's accidentally dug up the Devil's remains, and the next young person in the film is bringing home his fiancee, a woman who does not meet the standards of his family.
Without a doubt, the highlight of the film is Linda Hayden's sinister, sexually charged portrayal of Angel Blake. Seventeen years old at the time of filming and already an established sex symbol due to her appearances in "Baby Love" and "Taste the Blood of Dracula," Hayden is a magnetic screen presence. She blends adolescent awkwardness with budding sensuality and adds scheming evil to make Angel Blake an unforgettable character. Creating a threatening ringleader out of a beautiful teenage girl is no mean feat and, by some alchemy, the moments of girlishness that Hayden allows Angel only underscore her dangerousness. Angel Blake is a character in the same vein as Helen Vaughan from Arthur Machen's novella "The Great God Pan," or Lucy Westenra in "Dracula." She's a young woman who has gained enormous sexual power through her connection to extraordinary evil. Her amoral, fierce dedication to spreading this corruption has parallels in venereal disease scares and the more generalized terror of female erotic empowerment.
From a production design perspective, "Blood on Satan's Claw" is a triumph. There's a lived-in feel to the interior spaces, which are filled with the kind of everyday ephemera one might find in an inhabited building. Unlike the (admittedly charming) indoor sets favored by Hammer Films, there's an effort to create realism by using natural settings and historical exteriors. In order to further evoke the 17th Century setting, the cinematography alludes to paintings of the time. Some shots are framed and lit like a Vermeer, blending sunny highlights with rich tones of wood and earth. There's a pastoral loveliness to many scenes that belies the ghoulish story.
The majority of the pacing problems can be attributed to the fact that the film was originally conceived as a three-part anthology, with the stories linked by the unearthed Devil skeleton. While the tale of the judge rooting out evil blends nicely with the material about the evil children, the third storyline--that of a young man and his fiancee who are driven mad by Satanic forces--is less integrated. Unfortunately, it's this third storyline that is the focus of the first twenty-plus minutes of screen time. The characters of Peter and Rosalind just aren't sketched well enough for the viewer to become invested in their fates. Contrast that with Angel Blake, who's clearly a tough bit of business right from her first minutes on screen, and it's pretty evident that these characters were short-shrifted. I'd posit that, in spite of a neat gag I won't spoil here, the Peter and Rosalind story could have been excised entirely and not really missed.
|"I am the Lord of Hellfire and Mild Allergens."|
This brings me to the final bothersome bit about this movie: it attempts to create similar social commentary to that found in "Witchfinder General" in a universe where the supernatural is real. The Judge is not a Matthew-Hopkins clone; he's clearly more dedicated to his office and never takes part in the kind of blackmail and abuse of power that Hopkins does. While there's a similarly jaded spirit at work in him--the film shows him as an alcoholic, class-conscious misanthrope--he's ultimately convinced of the reality of demonic powers. The Judge is never a "Good" character, though. His response to Rosalind's madness is to board her up in the attic--this coming from the man who is the village's savior. It's a strangely-scripted character, and much of the driving force of the plot is reliant on the Judge's actions. It's fortunate that the brilliant Patrick Wymark (in one of his final screen appearances) was cast in the role. Other actors suggested for the role included British horror luminaries like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Michael Gough, but Wymark brings a roughness and power to the role that might have been missing were it played by another actor. He sinks his teeth into the role and brings an unevenly-written character to life--the Judge is never likeable, but he's certainly charismatic.
The fact that the forces of the Social Norm--not to be confused with Good--eliminate the Devil's cult sets up a twisted morality. It's difficult to celebrate an ending where anyone who challenged the restrictive standards of the time winds up mutilated or dead, with more of the same in store for others who might be tempted to act similarly. There's no catharsis in that, and for a film that has so many intense moments, it's missing a true emotional climax.
"Blood on Satan's Claw" is a flawed but interesting film that should be appreciated for what it does well. Immersive production design and some outstanding performances make it worth the time of occult cinema fans, but the film's attempts to blend historical realism and fantastical horror never gel. Ultimately, this is an interesting companion piece to superior but the similarly-themed films "Witchfinder General" and "Wicker Man."
See more images from "Blood on Satan's Claw" on Flickr.