Here’s an creepy and unusual shocker from an interesting period in British cinema. Blood On Satan’s Claw was released in 1971 by Hammer-wannabe studio Tigon, and with a title like that you’d expect something pretty lurid. You’d be right too, but not maybe in the way you’d anticipated. This is an example of what’s sometimes called folk-horror (see The Wicker Man for how unsettling a horror film can be when it draws on elements of folklore and ritual), set in a rural English community in the late seventeenth century. Its obvious antecedent is Michael Reeve’s Witchfinder General from a few years before, but whereas that film concerned itself with the abuse of power of the authorities charged with rooting out witchcraft, Blood On Satan’s Claw presents a scenario in which the villagers are gradually coming under an actual occult influence, and the local judge represents reason and enlightenment.
The various sinister events that occur in the village seem to be initiated by the discovery by a local labourer tilling a field of some sort of skull. You don’t get too long a look at it, but it certainly doesn’t bode well – at least one of the eyeballs is intact, and there are hanks of hair still attached. This pre-credits sequence, like the rest of the film, is shot with a care and craft rare in the horror genre: the camera is often very close to the ground, as if it’s representing the Earth’s point of view rather than the villagers, and the accomplished close-up shots of crows that lead into the titles are there to establish atmosphere rather than provide cheap shocks.
The queasiness and almost clinical detachment from the characters continues through the main body of the film. There are a handful of intersecting story strands involving a number of fairly predictable figures: the judge, a local squire, an honest working man and his family, a naive and ineffectual churchman cast in the role of teacher, and a host of variously inscrutable and anxious children. In each strand we find characters falling prey to a malign influence that manifests itself in different ways, all of them unsettling: one man becomes convinced his hand is becoming a claw, patches of fur start to appear on villagers’ bodies, a sultry teenager sets herself up as a priestess and presides over satanic rituals involving rape and murder. Nowhere is it made explicit what the cause of these aberrations is, or how they’re spreading, and it’s this that lends the film its peculiar power – in some ways, there’s a parallel to be made with Hitchcock’s The Birds, which also withholds an explanation. Director Piers Haggard for the most part manages to have his cake and eat it: his success in building a convincingly eerie milieu means that the occasional shocking set-piece doesn’t feel gratuitous or mood-breaking, and indeed one or two of the pay-off sequences seem uncommonly affecting, to me at least. Only the climax of the film is somewhat disappointing.
Blood On Satan’s Claw came out at about the same time as The Devils, A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs and Frenzy, a relatively short period after censorship rules were relaxed and before screen violence and horror became processed into cynicism and exploitation. If you fancy something a bit weirder than your standard slasher flick you could do a lot worse.