Folk horror has been having a bit of a resurgence lately, thanks in no small part to Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019), a film that proves terror doesn’t only lurk in dark corners — it’s just as likely to strike in sunny fields filled with flowers. On its release, Midsommar immediately attracted comparisons to The Wicker Man (1973), the film that most people’s minds go to whenever the phrase “folk horror” is uttered. However, there were two other British horror films that came before The Wicker Man that helped to cement our collective understanding of what folk horror looks and feels like: Witchfinder General (1968) and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), the latter of which turns 50 this month.
The Blood on Satan’s Claw (also known as Satan’s Skin) centers around an epidemic of evil that spreads across a farming community in England after first a deformed, furry, eyeball-retaining skull and later a claw are uncovered in the fields. Despite having little tolerance for the old superstitions still prevalent in the local area, a judge (Patrick Wymark) from the nearby city is forced to confront this ancient force head-on as it gradually infects the village people, turning them into a murderous cult.
Despite sometimes taking a back seat to The Wicker Man in discussions of folk horror, The Blood on Satan’s Claw is as folk as they come, dealing with local legend, skewed morals, and supernatural happenings in a rural setting. Hell, the source of the evil is literally plowed up from the ground. So, in honor of the film’s 50th anniversary, let’s have a dig in those unhallowed soils and explore the birth of this folk horror behemoth.
There is, growing amongst you, an insolent ungodliness…
The history of The Blood on Satan’s Claw is irrevocably linked to Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm) and their mutual production company, Tigon British Film Productions. Tigon was founded by the late Tony Tenser, a keen movie lover who believed that the only things guaranteed to sell a film were sex and horror. Formerly working in the cinema management and publicity side of things, Tenser got into film production in the 1960s alongside strip club owner Michael Klinger, with whom he had run a members-only cinema club that showed nudist movies and arthouse films with adult themes.
After starting out, predictably, in the realm of titillation, the producer duo soon broke into the horror business in the hopes of replicating Hammer’s box office successes, with one of their best-known movies being Roman Polanski’s first English-language film, Repulsion (1965). But the partnership came to an end soon after, with Klinger going on to produce larger-scale productions like Get Carter (1971) while Tenser made his mark on the world of low-budget horror through his newly minted production outfit, Tigon.
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“The Blood on Satan’s Claw is as folk as they come, dealing with local legend, skewed morals, and supernatural happenings in a rural setting.”
The horror films produced by the short-lived studio are a mixed bag, but Tigon would strike gold in 1968 with director Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General. In spite of the legendary bickering between Reeves and star Vincent Price, who had been cast in the lead role against the director’s wishes (the script had been written with Donald Pleasence in mind), the film proved a box office success and is remembered today as a cult classic. It’s thanks to this success that The Blood on Satan’s Claw became the perfect film to pair Witchfinder General with for a folky double feature, because Blood’s action was deliberately transplanted from the Victoria era to the 17th century to mimic the earlier movie.
Despite the similar subject matter and setting, there is one key difference between Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw. As Ian Fryer puts it in his book The British Horror Film: From the Silent to the Multiplex, The Blood on Satan’s Claw can be seen as answering the question, “What if Matthew Hopkins [Price’s heartless witchhunter] was right?” While we see no evidence in Witchfinder General that witchcraft is real and ample evidence that Hopkins is just a nasty, opportunistic piece of work, The Blood on Satan’s Claw oozes otherworldly evil from every pore.
Rise now from the forest, from the furrows, from the fields…
As a producer, Tenser liked to take chances on people, which explains why Robert Wynne-Simmons was chosen to write the screenplay for The Blood on Satan’s Claw. Wynne-Simmons was fresh out of school at the time with little in the way of professional experience, but Tenser evidently saw something in him. In the vein of the Amicus horror anthologies that were popular at the time, Wynne-Simmons’ first crack at the screenplay was comprised of separate but linked stories, based on some of his unpublished short stories.
Director Piers Haggard — who was himself a largely untested figure in the film arena, having worked primarily in theater and television — stepped in to help the young screenwriter rework the script, scrapping the portmanteau-style structure in favor of a single narrative. This explains why the final product feels a little disjointed, with characters featured heavily in initial scenes having little bearing on the rest of the film, though it doesn’t rob the film of its eerie power.
“The Blood on Satan’s Claw presents a vision of a world where familiar, seemingly safe settings can become sites of unspeakable cruelty and horror in the blink of an eye […]”
The unrest central to Wynne-Simmons’ script remained intact. The Blood on Satan’s Claw is permeated with a sense that evil is always on the fringes, occasionally buried but always waiting to be revived. This is accomplished in the film through the growing of fur on the cultists’ bodies, which they must then cut off — a sacrifice of sorts — to rebuild their deity. Though the judge ultimately succeeds in slaying the fiend and restoring order, viewers are left to consider whether he has merely put the evil back to sleep.
Even more unsettling, The Blood on Satan’s Claw presents a vision of a world where familiar, seemingly safe settings can become sites of unspeakable cruelty and horror in the blink of an eye, and where evil is perpetrated by the people you’d least expect. This was a realization that contemporary viewers had very recently had to confront. In 1968, an 11-year-old girl named Mary Bell was convicted of the killings of two young children in England; a year later, across the pond, members of the Manson Family brutally murdered the pregnant Sharon Tate and four others in the home she shared with her husband Roman Polanski. Wynne-Simmons drew inspiration from both crimes, resulting in a film in which a cult comprised largely of the village’s youth commits increasingly horrific acts in the idyllic English countryside.
Angel has taught us some new games…
Things begin innocently enough with a little truancy from scripture class here and burgeoning sexuality there. It doesn’t take long, though, for the cult to take things to a disturbing level as they lure classmate Mark (Robin Davies) into the woods and blindfold him under the guise of a game, only to shoot him in the woodshed and taunt his poor mother. But The Blood on Satan’s Claw’s most shocking and controversial scene occurs when Mark’s sister, Cathy (Wendy Padbury), is ritualistically raped and slaughtered in the woods, all under the watch of the cult’s young leader, Angel (Linda Hayden).
Beyond the subject matter itself, the score, provided by Marc Wilkinson, is a big part of what makes this scene so frightening and intense. Wilkinson’s use of unusual instruments like the Ondes Martenot (an early electronic instrument), wordless vocals, and unfurling, descending note structures creates a sound that is beautiful yet unnerving, familiar yet spectral. The Blood on Satan’s Claw’s sound was so influential on the folk horror landscape, in fact, that Wilkinson was later brought in to provide input on the music for The Wicker Man.
“The Blood on Satan’s Claw oozes otherworldly evil from every pore.”
Wilkinson’s score is the perfect accompaniment to the lush green backdrop that the murders and general immorality take place against. Haggard and cinematographer Dick Bush conjured an Arcadian England straight out of a Wordsworth poem, only one in which atrocities are happening just behind the tree line. There is a real sense of innocence being corrupted, which may be helped by the fact that Haggard was new to horror (both as a viewer and as a director) and seemed as surprised as anyone to have been asked to helm the film. Unlike many movies of the era, which are often in-your-face fright fests, part of The Blood on Satan’s Claw‘s power is that you never quite expect it to go as far as it does — making the cruelty playing out all the more shocking.
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Even with all these things going for it, The Blood on Satan’s Claw failed to find the box office success that Witchfinder General had enjoyed, making little money upon release. The lack of a horror heavy-hitter on the poster to draw crowds in may have been a contributing factor in this, a mistake Tigon would later rectify with 1973’s The Creeping Flesh, starring both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
Whatever the reason, The Blood on Satan’s Claw didn’t find its audience until much later, by which point Tigon had long since closed its doors. Five decades after its release, the film is rightfully recognized and celebrated as one of the pillars of the folk horror temple — a temple that filmmakers continue to visit and build upon to this day. It’s an atmospheric, disquieting film, and its legacy will only continue to grow like so much fur upon a cult member’s leg.
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