Linda HaydenAnthony AinleyWendy PadburyRoberta Tovey
Blood on Satan's Claw
Medium: film
Year: 1971
Director: Piers Haggard
Writer: Robert Wynne-Simmons, Piers Haggard
Keywords: horror, historical, Tigon
Country: UK
Actor: Patrick Wymark, Linda Hayden, Barry Andrews, Michele Dotrice, James Hayter, Anthony Ainley, Howard Goorney, Avice Landone, Charlotte Mitchell, Wendy Padbury, Tamara Ustinov, Simon Williams, Robin Davies, Roberta Tovey
Format: 92 minutes
Website category: Horror 1970/80s
Review date: 9 January 2010
I thought this was pretty much a failure, so imagine my surprise on finding that there are people who love it and think it's atmospheric. Obviously I disagree, but I can sort of see why someone might think that. I'd been wondering even while I was watching if this movie hadn't been trying to draw inspiration from Night of the Demon (1957), which I haven't even watched yet but was an influential British horror by Jacques Tourneur that's apparently done in a Lewton-esque style. [Note to self: buy Night of the Demon.]
To be honest though, I'm not sure on this one. Were the filmmakers trying to be a third-generation Val Lewton, or had they been trying to do a straight horror movie and simply happened to fail in this particular way? Personally I'd have been tempted to go for the former, since their narrative is so fragmented and unstructured that it's hard to imagine someone managing to perpetrate it if they hadn't been somehow aiming for it. Or maybe we have Tigon's studio executives to thank? The script's first draft was set in the Victorian era and had a more ambiguous threat, but Tigon wanted to cash in on their success with Witchfinder General (1968) and so ordered the writers to move it to the mid-17th century, add references to witchcraft and make the ending more of a showdown. Then you've got the fact that one of the film's most memorable scenes wasn't in the script and was simply improvised on location. Presumably think someone suggested taking Wendy Padbury's clothes off and this was recognised immediately as a splendid idea.
I don't know. I like to give the benefit of the doubt, but it doesn't sound as if this was a rigorously planned film. However at the end of the day, it doesn't matter. That's not what's on the screen. Whatever the filmmakers thought they were going for, I'd say they missed.
To be fair, they achieve a dreamlike, fluid narrative. That's the polite word for it. As you might expect of a film that went through the aforementioned production process, the storyline seems a little reluctant to come together into what's normally known as a "plot". Scenes come out of nowhere, then hardly get referred to again. Characters' reactions seem deficient, with a murder causing less sensation than I'd have expected in this small community. It's certainly distinctive, mind you. Sometimes it even feels like characterisation. Early in the film two people send to a lunatic asylum someone their friend and nephew had been planning to marry the following day, then hardly seem to give it another thought. That was chilling, but also not unconvincing in a society steeped in intolerant religion. We're in the century of Puritans, civil war and witch-hunts, even if this film is set after the worst of it. "His Catholic Majesty King James III, may God bless him and keep him in exile." That suggests we're after the accession of William and Mary in 1688, by which time the Puritans had been kicked out of power and were calling themselves dissenters.
However there comes a point where one has to stop saying "dreamlike" and start saying "badly written". Linda Hayden's accusations against Anthony Ainley are believed far too readily, for instance.
It's a surprisingly low-key film, despite its lurid title, and had it been set in the present day then it might have been set on a council estate. I liked that, actually. It's nice to be reminded that the past wasn't just a time of kings and the characters in history books. This is a village. There's only one man of social class here and someone reminds him at one point that this isn't the city. The villagers talk in "oi won't be gone laaang" accents and spend a lot of time in fields. Furthermore the production's paying an impressive level of attention to detail, even compared with the painstaking period recreations of all the other Hammer and Hammer-a-like movies around then. I admired the authentic historical touches such as the plain playing cards, the state of medical expertise and the mummy-like shrouds they use instead of coffins. Verisimilitude like that makes a difference. I believed that this was the 17th century. Even the bits that looked wrong to me are actually authentic and I was just making incorrect assumptions. That book on witchcraft might look a bit modern, but in fact it's not unlike a Gutenberg Bible and those are from the 1450s. Even the names are correct for the period, with Linda Hayden's character being called Angel.
The film definitely has good bits. I was mildly disturbed by the scene of the girl coming down from the attic, while those close-ups of minor leg surgery would have been video nasty material if they hadn't so obviously been just a prosthetic being peeled off. Even given that fact, it's still fairly strong. Towards the end there's a scene that could even be called frightening, when something's approaching Barry Andrews's cottage and all we can hear are its footsteps getting louder.
Similarly Lewtonesque is the movie's use of its monster, with which it's oddly uninterested in trying to scare us. One merely spots it occasionally, as one might the Loch Ness Monster. We're obviously expected to assume it's the Devil, but the evidence would seem to be against its being supernatural and, despite the genre clash, it might just as easily have been Bigfoot or an alien. I'd have laughed my head off had it shot everyone with a laser pistol and then called up its invasion fleet. However much more important than the monster itself are its evil effects on the villagers, which are sufficiently fortean that I'm still not entirely sure what was meant to have been going on. I don't think I was meant to, either. Was that real or illusion? Psychic powers? Hypnotism? I'm buggered if I know, but I wouldn't want it happening to me.
The cast is mostly of interest to Doctor Who fans, starring both Wendy Padbury and Anthony Ainley in decent-sized roles. They're both okay. Ainley doesn't have much connection with the children he's supposedly teaching, but then again he's playing the kind of cold-as-ice priest who probably thinks fun is immoral. The script even includes the line "it's the Master!" but unfortunately they're talking about someone else. Apparently Roberta Tovey also appears as an uncredited coven member, although I didn't notice her. Overall the cast is fine, with Linda Hayden thoughtfully taking her clothes off for us and Patrick Wymark doing good work in his penultimate role before his death the following year. Michele Dotrice also appears, for you fans of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, as does a man who looks like a hobbit. There aren't any big stars, although they thought about casting Christopher Lee as the Judge before deciding he was too expensive. Tigon weren't a big outfit. They're another of those British studios like Amicus that were trying to cash in on the Hammer horror wave.
The music's good. There's nudity and some violence that both had to be toned down for its US release. The title is far too lurid for this comparatively understated movie, but you've got to love it anyway. Apparently it was Samuel Z. Arkoff, producer for American International Pictures, who thought it up. If you want a one-line description of this film's scenario, it's a bit like The Crucible might have been if the McCarthyist accusations had actually been understating it. I found it a bit boring and slightly incoherent, but maybe that's just me.