A Film by Piers Haggard
I recently watched a documentary on the Folk Horror film genre that got me interested in watching a number of the films presented, with one of the earliest, The Blood on Satan’s Claw a top priority. I actually did a double dose of watching this film alongside a recent Audible audio drama re-imagining. Piers Haggard is widely regarded as one of the men that arguably “created” folk horror with this and Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General being two of the earliest examples where such a label was applied to it. As such, many tropes in this film may seem old and played out in 2022 when pretty much any film plot has been regurgitated over and over ad-nauseum. However, this film should escape that scrutiny because this is the first film to do many of the things presented with subsequent films being derivative of it rather than vice versa. The question now arises, is The Blood on Satan’s Claw still watchable in now?
“When a mysterious corpse is accidentally dug up by a boy in a small town, a group of local teens starts acting very strangely. The adolescents, led by a girl named Angel (Linda Hayden), are convinced the corpse was once possessed. Hoping to get in touch with the devil through the body, the teens act out a series of demonic rituals that causes a stir among the townspeople. When word of the satanic activity spreads, certain parents start trying to lock up the kids behind the spooky stunts.”
From a purely cinematic standpoint, The Blood on Satan’s Claw is absolutely gorgeous. Shots in the film are framed amazingly, make-up and costuming are well-done, and I can’t help but notice that the shooting locations are selected well and look every bit of the Eighteenth Century that the film takes place in. The film comes at you with an unrelenting atmosphere that grows discomfort as the film progresses, and makes the viewer feel helpless as all manner of bad things start happening. The iconic film score by Mark Wilkinson is creepy and mesmerizing, with many tracks going on to be standard-bearers for the genre.
For me, one of the cooler things was seeing a lot of Doctor Who alumni in the cast, including a young Anthony Ainley (The Master) as Reverend Fallowfield, and Wendy Padbury (Zoe) as Cathy Vespers. Some performances are better than others, but one can tell that everyone involved were trained theater actors as every word was spoken with a gravitas not usually seen in most films or TV shows. Linda Hayden plays the evil “cult leader” Angel Blake and does a great job considering I believe the actress was either just at 18 or slightly younger during filming.
With all the praise I can give this film, I do have some issues as well. For one thing, the plot is not as smooth as it could have been resulting in characters acting utterly bizarre for no reason. A prime example is at the beginning a young man brings his fiancé home to meet his family to which they act as if she is pure evil for no reason, then when she gets possessed by the demon (coincidence!) it is used as vindication for have badly the girl was treated, and she is quickly ushered out into a mental asylum. Characters fly into weird rages, and everyone acts like they have no concept of logic at times. I can imagine that this was largely due to the need to move everything along quickly to meet a set runtime, but the film would have been much better with more breathing room. Also, I feel like the elephant in the room is that there is a questionable, and very controversial, scene depicting a rape that goes on WAY too long and could be VERY disturbing for people.
This is definitely a classic and defines the folk horror genre in many ways. You can see the influence the film has had on many things, with later folk horror films especially. It’s not a perfect film, and is definitely a movie of its time, but is a great watch for anyone into film history. I will say, I actually prefer the plotting on the remake, as I stated in my review, but I have the ability to compare the two and see that the newer version was created for a different medium. If you. like me, love folk horror this is a definite watch.