Re-watching this last night only cemented my opinion that Blood on Satan’s Claw is one of the very best British horror films. It may not be the most famous -certainly the best Hammer films have always been more popular and likely always will- but there is a dark undercurrent that elevates Claw above most British horror. It also forms a rather notable (albeit unintended) horror trilogy with 1968’s Witchfinder General and 1973’s The Wicker Man either side of it- three of the most haunting horrors ever made, sharing themes of Paganism and Witchcraft, and threatened Christianity, with Claw perhaps the most perverse of the three in how it portrays the seduction of the innocent. Its an undeniably disturbing piece of work that surpasses the limitations of its budget, at least until reaching its climax.
The film feels genuinely authentic- it looks utterly gorgeous (the work of cinematographer Dick Bush who also filmed Hammer’s Twins of Evil), the locations and sets are convincing and eerily moody- it looks like a far more ambitious and higher-budgeted film than it really is. Some of the location footage measures up very well against even Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. For me, the best horror films are all about atmosphere rather than gore, and Claw is particularly brilliant at this, really evoking the period setting and maintaining an atmosphere of brooding menace throughout, heightened by a creepy score that worms its way under your skin. There is something tangible about its sense of place and time lacking in, say, those Hammer films with a similar setting.
The story is fairly simple, only complicated by it actually being a combination of three separate stories (giving it an unnerving, disjointed feel that elevates the strangeness of the narrative). In 17th century rural England, a farm labourer (Barry Andrews) ploughing a field uncovers remains of a devilish skull, complete with a perfectly preserved human eye starring back at him, as if its actually aware of him. The shaken labourer enlists the advice of the Judge (Patrick Wymark), taking him to the field for his opinion but the remains have disappeared, upon which the Judge discounts the labourers tale. However, the unearthing clearly triggers unnatural occurrences, and particularly odd behaviour amongst the children of the village, their young innocent minds evidently corrupted by a demonic presence, their games in abandoned church ruins out in the woods becoming increasingly sexual and violent, culminating in rape and murder.
The beautiful Linda Hayden is excellent as the Satanic Cults young leader, the bewitched Angel Blake intent on returning her demonic master to corporeal form by sacrificing others. The scene where she undresses in church to seduce the village Reverend is a remarkable confrontation between the forces of Good and Evil, the sacred and the profane, that must have likely concerned film censors of the day. Its the films stand-out scene and is an erotically-charged moment that is quite chilling. Hayden is particularly good at playing a sultry seductress one moment and a naive innocent the next, as having failed to corrupt the priest she then feigns shame as she soon after accuses the Reverend of attacking and abusing her. Its a stand-out performance throughout the film and I am amazed that she didn’t become a major actress.
Eventually the ambition of the film proves its undoing- the conclusion simply cannot measure up to what it wants to be with such a limited budget and production- but its what leads up to that conclusion that makes the film such a great horror film. Indeed, I think its superior to both Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man. Why aren’t British film-makers making more films like this? Here we are four decades later and there is still nothing quite like it.