Blood On Satan's Claw Review

Tigon British was a relatively short-lived company that distinguished itself by making a handful of classic films in amongst quite a bit of rubbish. It developed out of a company named Compton-Tekli, run by two East End wideboys named Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser. Having just acquired the famous Windmill Theatre, they were keen to get into films and, principally, into the growing market for British exploitation movies which had been developed by Hammer. Their best and most distinguished film was Polanski’s marvellous Repulsion, after which Tenser left the company and formed Tony Tenser Films, later renamed Tigon. They made The Sorcerers with the brilliant young Michael Reeves and employed Peter Cushing in The Blood Beast Terror - which the veteran actor regarded as the worst film of his career. Alternating genius with crap, they followed Reeves’s brilliant last film Witchfinder General with the truly dire The Curse of the Crimson Altar. By 1970, Tigon were generally considered a rung below Amicus Productions who were themselves a rung below Hammer Films. It was perhaps Tigon’s misfortune to come to prominence during the best years of Hammer, when films like Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb and Quatermass And The Pit were challenging the style of the studio and changing it for the better, but they certainly made some fine films.

Piers Haggard’s Blood On Satan’s Claw is one of Tigon’s best films; a taut, eerie and exciting period gothic that contains some genuine chills amidst the commercially exploitable sex and gore. Intended as a successor, in spirit if not in story, to Witchfinder General, the film is an unexpectedly intelligent study of devilry and repression set towards the end of the 17th Century. A young farmhand named Ralph (Andrews) is ploughing a field near his village when he finds a mysterious fragment of skull, distinguished by the presence of a single eyeball and a seemingly misplaced patch of hair. He reports it to a distinguished Judge (Wymark) who is staying nearby but when the two men return to the spot, the fragment has disappeared. The Judge, sceptical about witchcraft and only too familiar with the hysteria of the past century, considers it to be peasant ignorance. He is staying with an old friend, whose nephew Peter (Williams) arrives with a girl he intends to marry. His intended, a farmer’s daughter, is scorned by his aunt and the Judge and forced to stay in the long-abandoned attic room. During the night she begins to scream and is later found, in a state of hysteria, with a claw where her hand should be. The girl is removed to an asylum but similar and increasingly sinister incidents begin to take place throughout the village, all of them centred around a young girl named Angel Blake (Hayden). When children begin to die, the people begin to suspect witchcraft and even the Judge realises that he’s up against something too irrational and dangerous to dismiss as village superstition.

What immediately strikes you when watching Blood On Satan’s Claw is how well it uses the usually tranquil English countryside as a place of terror. This wasn’t something new in 1970 – Tigon’s earlier Witchfinder General is still one of the great examples of this usage thanks to John Coquillon’s work as DP – but it’s worth mentioning Dick Bush’s extraordinarily evocative photography of a rural community. No dodgy day-for-night in this film. This helps in turning a stock collection of spotty teenagers into a genuinely disturbing group of cult members, especially in key scenes such as the horrible moment when the innocent Cathy Vespers (Padbury) is raped and killed in the ruins of a chapel. The location filming is exemplary, offering a genuine feeling of strangeness. That’s quite an achievement at a time when most Hammer films – shot in the same part of the Home Counties – all tend to look alike. You’d be hard pressed, for example, to distinguish between the settings of The Vampire Lovers, Demons of the Mind and Countess Dracula. What Bush succeeds in doing is making familiar England seem uncannily other, in the way that Coquillon did in the earlier Tigon film and, a year later, in Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.

This was Piers Haggard’s debut as a director and it’s an extremely confident one. It’s not unusual for first time helmers to play around with the possibilities of different kinds of shots but Haggard does it in such a way as to deliberately disorientate the audience. I particularly like the frequent use of very low shots, perhaps representing the demon’s point of view, if you accept the film’s suggestion that the old religion is somehow emanating out of the ground. There are some sustained pieces of filmmaking. Take, for example, the scene where the young fiancée descends the stairs shortly after her hand has been replaced by a claw. Very little happens but the use of extreme close-up, first person shots, slightly ‘off’ angles and the culmination of the scene, as the claw is revealed, is virtuoso stuff. There’s another, very subtle, example of his technical skill in the scene where Mark Vespers is playing Blind Man’s Buff. The tone of the scene is already unsettling but it becomes more so as he begins to play and we wait to see when he’s going to encounter the dreaded Angel. Haggard and Bush keep a handheld camera on him and then, as he passes a doorway, we briefly see Angel standing there, quietly waiting. He eventually bumps into her but it’s the glimpse which gives you the frisson. The effect is deliciously creepy and more memorable than the extended, genuinely nasty sequences such as Chastity’s ritual deflowering. In scenes such as these, Haggard builds up a feverish tempo and manages the difficult task of exploiting the horror without exploiting the actors. Although there are some very bloody scenes - Edward carving off his own hands after a terrifying dream and the removal of ‘Satan’s skin’ from the leg of Michelle Dotrice are difficult to forget – there are numerous moments where Haggard makes the most of the build-up and cuts away from the gore. That’s the kind of restraint which some other Tigon films of the period – James Kelly’s appalling The Beast In The Cellar for one –would have done well to learn.

At the centre of this devilish inferno are two superb performances. Patrick Wymark was a stalwart of British television after his role in “The Power Game” and was a familiar face in movies, including Where Eagles Dare, Repulsion and Witchfinder General in which he played Cromwell. I don’t think, however, that he ever gave a performance quite as impressive as he does here, as the terrifyingly self-righteous Judge. It’s a fascinating part to begin with. This Judge is not a Matthew Hopkins or Jeffreys; he’s a rational, intelligent man who believes in progress and sneers at notions of witchcraft. He’s also, and this is an interesting aspect of the character which isn’t followed up, a radical who drinks a toast to the ‘Old Pretender’ and smashes the glass in the fire. In other words, he’s an outsider who has, for the moment, grabbed the reins of power and intends to use them to steer himself as far as he can go before being found out. I think it’s his self-satisfied certainty which is most frightening, whether it’s confirming to himself that the younger generation can’t win at cards or insisting that terrible evil requires terrible means to combat it. This is made clear in a marvellous speech, delivered to the baffled Squire (Hayter) – “You must have patience, even while people die. Only thus can the whole evil be destroyed. You must let it grow!”

The other great performance is from the very young Linda Hayden. Although this wasn’t Hayden’s film debut – she had played in the notorious Baby Love, a film it’s now impossible to watch without hideous embarrassment, and was one of the juvenile leads in Hammer’s splendid Taste The Blood Of Dracula - this was certainly the first time she suggested that she could be a stunningly good film actress. She makes Angel a riveting villainess, whether seducing the bemused curate (Anthony Ainley) or gleefully plunging a pair of shears into the back of a poor young classmate. She understands, like all good actors, the power of stillness and Angel is never more sinister than when simply standing and watching. Hayden was a very promising talent around this time but she didn’t go on to the kind of parts she should have had, going on to the likes of Confessions of a Window Cleaner and Ray Cooney farces in the West End. The only later performance which has anything like the edge of her work in this movie is her portrayal of demented obsession in Expose, a film which she has, sadly, disowned. Given that she and Udo Kier are the only reasons to see the film, it’s a little odd that she won’t give herself credit for that work but will happily own up to dross like Vampira and Confessions From A Holiday Camp - the latter film enlivened only by her very picturesque nude scene.

Perhaps the reason why Blood On Satan’s Claw is so fascinating is that it takes its subject so seriously. I don’t mean that it’s solemn or po-faced but it deals with witchcraft as a part of country life and rural history in an adult manner. Hammer were quite capable of producing work which wasn’t camp – have a look at Demons of The Mind, a brilliant psychoanalytic horror movie – but they rarely made anything quite as disturbing as Haggard’s film. Marc Wilkinson’s lovely music score helps a lot in this regard. The actors seem to realise that they’re involved in something slightly out of the ordinary and they respond with some highly convincing work. Anthony Ainley’s sexually repressed curate – very different from The Master - and Wendy Padbury’s sad, sacrificed Cathy deserve a mention. The exception to this conviction is the wonderful James Hayter who gleefully hams his way through the film as the Squire, but the part encourages this approach and he’s fun to watch anyway. There’s an oppressive, deeply unpleasant atmosphere to this film and even the slightly unfortunate moments towards the end – the appearance of the demon is low budget, to put it kindly – don’t do anything to change the overall effect. The climactic scenes involving Patrick Wymark and the demon should be absurd but Wymark’s total conviction and the truly memorable final image, so ambiguous and suggestive, is one of the greatest moments of British horror cinema.

The Disc

It’s great to finally see Blood On Satan’s Claw in a decent, uncensored print. Despite certain flaws in the transfer, this is a good disc and something like a return to form for Anchor Bay after the baffling disappointment of Android.

The film is presented in a non-anamorphic transfer which is framed at approximately 1.77:1. The film was shot open matte but was matted for cinema release. You’re seeing exactly what would have been seen in theatres and there’s nothing of importance missing as far as I can see. Much of the film is deliberately dark and this could have caused problems but the transfer is crisp and detailed with few serious artefacting problems though a certain amount of noise is present in places. There is some minor print damage present and a slightly grainy appearance to some scenes. But the colours come across very strongly and the main problem is the lack of anamorphic enhancement. This is a shame since Anchor Bay have been pretty reliable in recent months, notably with The Hills Have Eyes and four out of the five titles in the Amicus Collection boasting very nice anamorphic transfers. On a positive note, I have never seen the film looking as good as this – I saw a theatrical print some years back which was in appalling. I would also defend Anchor Bay in this regard; given the obvious effort made with this release and the relatively small profit margin they are working with, then creating a new anamorphic master would presumably be prohibitive. According to Marc Morris from Anchor Bay, MGM supplied the non-anamorphic master and it was decided to maximise resolution without sacrificing picture quality. However, this will be a real issue for some people so beware of this before buying.

There are, as usual, a range of English soundtracks to choose from. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, there’s only one worth listening to, and that’s the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track. It’s not the original Mono of course – and that really should have been included – but it’s not messed about with too much and there aren’t any really distracting artificial separations. It’s mostly the music, which is allowed to spread across the channels in a quite effective manner. The 5.1 and DTS mixes are the usual waste of time – see my comments on such remixes in various other reviews. They may well help sales but are simply artificial constructs which are essentially worthless, in the opinion of this reviewer.

There are a few extras included but the major one, the commentary, is a big plus. This features Linda Hayden, Piers Haggard and the writer Robert Wynne-Simmons and is fascinating to listen to. It’s moderated by Jonathan Southcott who does a good job of keeping things interesting and there are few dead spots. Anchor Bay’s commentary tracks are of a high standard at the moment and I hope this trend continues. They all seem proud of the film but they also keep it in perspective and are well aware of the less successful aspects of their work. Listening to this will also allow you to discover what was supposed to happen to Peter’s Aunt Banham, who vanishes mysteriously after the first half of the movie. My favourite bit of information was that Tony Tenser managed to fill a four page spread in “Mayfair” magazine with frame blow-ups from the climactic orgy.

There is, as usual with Anchor Bay, a short featurette included. Surprisingly, this is not on the making of the film but a brief and entertaining interview with Linda Hayden entitled “An Angel For Satan”. Ms. Hayden is an intelligent and engaging woman who speaks of the film and her other horror movies with a lot of affection. Some lovely home movie footage and lots of good photographs. I didn’t realise that she was only 17 when she made Blood On Satan’s Claw. As I said earlier, it’s a same that she’s got such a downer on the interesting Expose but that’s the way these things go. This is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1.

Two wonderful trailers are included, both in full screen and mediocre condition. The American voiceover does the hard sell but the film is actually represented quite accurately. Great tagline as well - “Are You Ready ? Do You Dare ? Could You Bear The Terrifying Touch of the Blood On Satan’s Claw ?”. The second trailer contains an additional mention of The Beast In The Cellar, the aforementioned atrocity which with which Haggard’s film went on general release.

An interesting photo gallery contains various video covers and posters from the flm, some good colour stills and excerpts from the press book. One photo contains a close-up, well lit picture of the demon which reveals why the film was wise to keep him in the dark. The film notes by Jonathan Sothcott are literate and informative, informing us as to the influence of the Mary Bell case on the script and the changes made when the period was shifted back from the Victorian era.

Those of you with DVD-ROM capabilities can read Robert Wynne-Simmons’ original stories, and fascinating they are too. I think the decision to compile them into one was the correct one but the ideas are constantly impressive and it’s very interesting to read the source of such a powerful film. Finally, rounding out the disc, we get detailed biographies of Linda Hayden and Piers Haggard.

My main criticism of the disc is the lack of subtitles. Yet again, Anchor Bay show contempt for a section of their potential audience.

Blood On Satan's Claw is a fascinating, daring and significant film which deserves to be much better known than it is. Anchor Bay's DVD is a good way of discovering it although the lack of the original Mono track and subtitles are quite serious drawbacks which prevent it from gaining must-buy status.

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