The British film studios Tigon and Amicus were generally seen as second-rate Hammer; but that’s not a fair assessment. Both turned out a number of horror films in the late 1960s and early ’70s, many of which also starred Christopher Lee and/or Peter Cushing, but each had a character of its own. The films of all three made up a lot of the late-night TV viewing of my youth.
For example, Tigon produced the extremely goofy Blood Beast Terror featuring a giant weremoth, as well as The Creeping Flesh with its philosophical musings on the true nature of Evil.
Tigon also made a couple of interesting films based on witch-hunting in 17th-century rural England with completely opposite points of view.
Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General stars Vincent Price as a chillingly cold-blooded and sadistic man based on real-life witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, who tortures and executes people accused of being witches. There are no real witches in this film, only innocent victims of Hopkins’s lust for money, prestige and power. In Blood on Satan’s Claw, on the other hand, the witches are real and evil, and the men who hunt them are the heroes.
The exact year in which Blood on Satan’s Claw is set isn’t clearly established, but it seems to be circa 1700; there’s a reference to “King James III in exile,” so it must be after the death of James II, when William of Orange or Queen Anne was actually the reigning monarch. The film consists of three separate stories; they were originally meant to be filmed as an anthology, then sewn together to form one plot, although a few gaps show here and there. Although they are original pieces of fiction, they have the flavor of authentic folk horror, the type of tales that might be told around the hearths of country homes during this period.
First folk tale: This farmer was out a-plowing his field, when he found something horrible buried in the dirt…
The film begins on a spring day somewhere in rural England with a ploughman by the name of Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews) working in a field belonging to local landowner Mistress Banham. When he notices a number of birds gathered on a spot of ground recently turned up by his plow, he investigates and finds a horrible thing: a collection of bones and a crushed skull with one intact and very fresh-looking eye.
Ralph runs to the manor-farm, where Mistress Banham (Avice Landone) is entertaining an old friend, a highly placed magistrate (Patrick Wymark. His character is credited as The Judge and doesn’t seem to have a name; I think he’s addressed once as Lord Edmond, but the dialogue isn’t clear).
The Judge is a skeptical gentleman, but he agrees to go out and have a look at Ralph’s gruesome find. When the two get out to the field, there’s no horrible wormy skull to be found. The local parson (Anthony Ainley) is discovered in the underbrush, catching a snake. A harmless proto-naturalist, or is he in league with the devil?
Second folk tale: A handsome young man brought his bride to his home, and she had to sleep in the attic…
While Ralph and the Judge are out in the field, the second story is introduced. Mistress Banham’s nephew Peter (Simon Williams) brings home Rosalind, a girl he has just eloped with and intends to marry the next day. Since Rosalind is only a farmer’s daughter and not one of the gentry, the aunt objects to the match. At first, she says that Rosalind can’t stay the night at her house, since it’s already full up with the Judge and Peter in the spare rooms, then she sends the poor girl up to sleep in the attic room.
Something–we don’t see what it is–frightens Rosalind. Peter hears her screaming but can’t get into the attic to help her; the door won’t open. The Judge and Peter’s aunt come up the stairs too and seem to think that Peter did something to his betrothed to make her scream.
When they try the door, it now opens easily. Mistress Banham goes in to give the hysterical girl a smack and gets her own face badly scratched (the Judge also slaps Peter, just because). Declaring that Rosalind has gone mad, the Judge has the attic door nailed shut to keep Rosalind prisoner there until men from Bedlam can come to take her away in the morning.
As the two Bedlam men bring her downstairs, Rosalind focused a mad look and strange, meaningful smile on the still-hopeful Peter, and shows him something that her escorts don’t see. Another disturbing image: her hand has become a delicate claw.
Mistress Banham, meanwhile, develops a high fever from the scratches on her face. The minute the housekeeper Mrs. Vespers isn’t looking, the old lady disappears from her bed and from the house. The Judge sends the farmhands and as many local lads as he can assemble out to search the countryside for her.
Peter, bewildered and heartbroken by these two personal disasters he doesn’t understand, declares that there is Evil in the house. He decides to spend the following night up in the attic where his beloved went mad in hopes of finding out what happened to her.
While he’s up there, he hears something moving beneath the loose floorboards and pulls them up. A hairy, clawed hand reaches up through the floor and grabs his arm. Peter fights free, moves a heavy trunk over the opening, and then lies down and goes to sleep.
He wakes later with claws at his throat, and hacks at the monstrous paw with a knife he’s kept at the bedside. When the camera pulls back a little, we can see that the hairy claw is actually his own right hand. This is the most gory scene in the movie, with blood all over the bed.
By the time the Judge comes up to the attic to see what the commotion is about, Peter has cut off his own hand, which is normal-looking again. The horrified judge sends for the doctor.
After Peter’s mutilated arm is bandaged up, the doctor and judge talk about devil worship and witchcraft. The doctor has a book on the subject, and shows the judge a drawing that resembles the creature that Ralph said he found in the field.
The Judge scoffs and says that the days of witchcraft are long past. Even though this can’t be more than about 10 years after the 1692 Salem witch trials, England’s last outbreak of witch hysteria was in the 1640s, 50 years earlier and at the edge of living memory. In spite of his beliefs on the subject, the Judge asks to borrow the book for further study. He has to leave this little rural community, but promises he will come back. They must let the evil unfold, even if it means more deaths, if they are to understand its purpose and defeat it.
That’s the end of this story. We never hear another word about the bride who went mad or the old lady who went missing. Peter shows up again with his stump of an arm bandaged, but he is not the hero of this film. The focus now shifts to Ralph, the housekeeper Mrs. Vespers, and her two children Cathy and Mark. While the mistress is missing and the young master is recovering from his self-inflicted injury, Ralph is in charge of the house.
Which brings us to the central plot that brings the stories together: The Devil needs a new skin…
On the day when Peter brought his intended bride to his aunt’s house, Mark and Cathy were out playing with some of their friends in that same field where Ralph turned up the creepy, wormy skull. Throughout this film, this group will be referred to as “the children,” but we’d call them teenagers, aged from 13 to 17. They are still at school and play childish games, which makes their subsequent activities all the most shocking.
One of the older girls, Angel Blake (Linda Hayden), finds a small object in the field. She doesn’t show it to her friends at that time, but passes it around later in a cloth bag when they’re having their school lessons with the Reverend Fallowfield. When he takes it away from them, it turns out to be a single talon much like the ones sported by Peter and his mad bride.
While the sweet and innocent Cathy is repulsed by this object, some of the others are attracted to it. Angel, we get the impression, was a naughty girl even before the devil got hold of her; when the youngsters go out to play their new “game” in the ruins of an old chapel in the woods, it is Angel who becomes the leader of their coven. Unfortunately, her eyebrows grow more dark and bushy as she becomes more evil.
Through these children and a few of the other local folk, the devil seeks to remake its body by using parts of theirs. A patch on each chosen person’s body will suddenly grow hairy (a symbol for the onset of puberty and burgeoning sexuality of the “children”?) and that part is cut off to be given to their demonic Master. Some, like Peter with his hand, survive this amputation; we’ll see members of the coven wearing bandages like his. Others, like Mark and Cathy who develop patches on their torsos, aren’t so lucky.
Angel tries to get Fallowfield to join her coven by showing up at the church one night wearing just her shift, then taking that off too. Naked, she tells him that her Master wants him to become of them.
The Rev. Fallowfield turns out to be a sincere man of God and not one of those lustful hypocrites so often seen in movies like this; although tempted by her young body, he rejects both her seduction attempt and her offer to turn to the Dark Side.
In retaliation, and to keep him from telling anybody about the coven, Angel tells her father and the local squire that the parson sexually assaulted her and made threats that implicate him in the death of Mark Vespers, whom they just buried that day. Fallowfield is arrested and taken away from the church bound with ropes. We don’t see what happens to him after that.
The truth is revealed when Cathy is next lured into the woods and killed (after a distasteful scene which was cut out of the late-night TV version I used to see, in which her dead brother returns to rape her). Ralph hears the girl scream and arrives too late to rescue her, but he has seen and can tell the squire who her murderers are.
While the leading members of the coven disappear into the woods, the local people begin to hunt for other witches among their community. Peter rides to London to seek out the Judge and ask for his help.
Third folk tale: Kind-hearted people give shelter to a girl who is said to be a witch–but then she says that she’s witch too…
The third story begins with some of the local folk chasing and catching a girl they suspect of being a witch. We know she is–we’ve seen her among the coven; her name is Margaret (Michele Dotrice)–but they subject her to the age-old trial by water and throw her into the stream to see if she floats and is a witch, or sinks and is innocent.
Ralph rescues her out of the stream and carries her back to the manor farm, where the bereaved mother of Cathy and Mark regards this girl as a heaven-sent replacement for the children she’s inexplicably lost.
One of the gaps between the separate stories appears here. Ralph and Mrs. Vespers don’t know who Margaret is even though they all live in the same small, rural community, a parish of at most 200 people. Margaret was a schoolmate and friend of Cathy’s and Mark’s. They should recognize her by sight even if they don’t know her name.
When Mrs. Vespers tries to get the still-unconscious Margaret out of her wet and muddy clothes to wash her, she and Ralph find the patch of devil’s hairy skin on her leg. They know what it means and, in an attempt to save her from evil, summon the doctor.
Another squirm-inducing but not gory scene follows, where they tie her down on the kitchen table and the doctor slices the hairy patch off in a delicate operation. It comes away bloodlessly like an old scab, leaving a raw area underneath.
But this doesn’t turn Margaret away from evil. She’s angry that her devil’s skin has been taken from her. As she heals, she talks about her master and tells Ralph that he should be honored for being the one who turned the devil up in the first place. The master wants him to join them. Since Margaret’s lost the “leg” she was going to give to her master, Ralph will provide another to take its place. She then flies from the house as soon as she’s well enough to run away.
The Judge returns just as Margaret leaves. He’s been studying the doctor’s book while he’s been away; to combat the witches, he’s brought with him a large, bald, mute assistant, two big black dogs who are trained to track the scent of Evil, and some heavy object wrapped up in a cloth.
When he hears about Margaret, the Judge asks if there’s any proof of her witchery. The doctor has had the foresight to preserve the piece of furry skin he removed in a little jar, and he shows this to the Judge. The Judge lets the dogs have a sniff of it and they are off, hot on Margaret’s trail.
Angel, now with eyebrows like Leonid Brezhnev, appears but lures her former friend to step into a leg-hold trap so she can question Margaret about whether or not she’s betrayed the coven. Margaret insists she hasn’t, but when Angel learns that Margaret no longer has her devil’s patch, she has no further use for her. “Let the dogs eat thee.”
The dogs do not eat Margaret, but when they catch up with her, the Judge takes her back to the farm for questioning.
It’s the Judge who is the hero of this movie, and that’s made clear here. Unlike similar scenes in which suspected witches are questioned, there is no torture or suggestion of sadistic pleasure in the proceedings; see the actions of Vincent Price’s character in Witchfinder General, or the Witchfinder Trask in Dark Shadows. The Judge is only interested in finding the truth. He tells Margaret he doesn’t want to hurt her and won’t if she answers him honestly. At worst, he pokes at her jaw with the side of his rapier. This and the proximity of the still-snarling dogs is enough for Margaret to decide she owes Angel nothing. She tells the Judge where the coven will meet that night.
Ralph, meanwhile, is continuing his usual work around the farm when he learns what Margaret meant by his contributing a limb to replace the one he took from her. While hacking at weeds with a small hand-scythe, he accidentally cuts his leg–but the wound doesn’t bleed. When he pulls down his woolen stocking to examine the injury, we get another of those disturbing images: his wounded leg is covered with scabby fur (It’s his left calf; Margaret’s patch was on her right thigh).
Horrified, Ralph runs back to the house and shuts himself up in that attic room. I don’t know why he thinks it’s a safe place, since it is where the devil first manifested itself.
No clawed hand comes up from the under the floorboards to grab him, but just after he peeks out through a little window and sees the Judge and his army of local men with torches and pitchforks heading through the fields into the woods at dusk, Ralph hears someone clumping slowly up the stairs; the devil is coming for him.
Ralph must have been transported by witchcraft, since he is among the coven at the chapel before the Judge and his men get there. The coven has placed Ralph on a stone slab that serves as a sort of sacrificial altar before a bonfire. Angel with her eyebrows and her shift acts as the priestess for this final ceremony.
Behind her, in a ruined chapel archway, stands the cloaked figure of the nearly completely assembled devil. It speaks in a buzzing, inhuman voice: “He is mine…”
Ralph is silently encouraged to cut off his own lower leg by a naked dancing woman–a character we’ve never seen in the movie before even with her clothes on. Ralph is entranced by the sight of bare breasts. The group of local men with the Judge hesitate in their concealed positions outside the chapel ruins, similarly dazed. But the Judge is made of sterner stuff and whips out the secret weapon he brought with him to combat the devil and his minions: a great big sword with a hilt in the form of a crucifix.
Angel, who was standing back beside her demonic master while the dance was going on, is the first to see the sword come out. She screams and abandons her coven, and tries to escape out through another archway–and runs straight on to a pitchfork. As she falls dead, she regains her normal eyebrows.
In a curious but striking directorial choice, the Judge freeze-frames for a moment before he advances on the coven in slow motion. The group of witches also freezes momentarily before they cower and attempt to flee before this sword-wielding man of justice. The one-legged devil hops forward for the final confrontation between good and evil.
What’s good about this movie?
- The setting. Access to the British countryside and genuine historical buildings can make even UK films with small budgets look good; Blood on Satan’s Claw takes advantage of both. The green woods and fields, the springtime flowers in bloom place the story within a setting believably the rural England of 300 years ago. Scenes of horror are often framed by tree branches or boughs of mayflowers. Although the interiors are sets, the manor-farm and churchyard exteriors are real locations.
- The language. I can’t think of another movie except The VVitch in which the people speak and behave as if they truly belong in this time period. Patrick Wymark especially fits well and convincingly into his role. No one looks anachronistically out of place, apart from the naked woman, who has a distinctly modern, shag hairstyle.
- Those disturbing but bloodless images. This film produces an effective, squirmy kind of horror that stays with the viewer. I hadn’t see it for many years, then caught it one Halloween night on UK television recently. I recognized it right away from the opening scene. While I didn’t remember much of the plot, you better believe I recalled every one of those unsettling images.
What’s not so good?
- Hair. It’s not just the dancer’s hairstyle I have a problem with. Angel’s eyebrows, which signify that she’s become Evil, look ridiculous; they get bigger and darker as the movie progresses and makes it harder to take her seriously, undermining an otherwise effective performance from a very young actress (Linda Hayden was 17 when she filmed this). The long, curly wig Patrick Wymark is wearing is meant to be a wig–it’s just the style that a man of the Judge’s implied wealth and social status would have at this time period–but I suspect that the long locks of Peter and the Rev. Fallowfield are meant to be their natural hair, not wigs, and they don’t look convincing on the heads of Simon Williams and Anthony Ainley.
- The Devil. It’s not so bad when it’s just standing in the background, and is genuinely creepy when it speaks in its buzzing voice. But when it hops forward for its battle with the Judge, it hardly seems like a fair fight. We get a good look at it at last. It’s a patchwork and somewhat shabby creature. Its face, which is probably the best part of it, resembles a leaf-nosed bat. The Judge easily skewers it on his Holy-Cross sword and pops it into the fire.
- Gaps and dropped characters. Since I know that this was originally three separate stories, I’m more forgiving of the discrepancies than I am of the Evil Eyebrows. But all the same, I can’t help wondering what became of Mistress Banham. You’d think that, scratched by the devil’s claws, she might have run off and joined the coven; there are older people among the group in the woods, but she is not among them. What about poor, mad Rosalind? I doubt she recovered her wits in Bedlam, but did her clawed hand revert to its normal state? Was the Reverend Fallowfield released? Did anybody untie Margaret after they questioned her?
- I could do without that incest/necrophilia/rape scene. I never saw it until I bought this film on BluRay and it’s just too much for me.
The BluRay disk is an All-Region UK release, and in addition to showing an uncut version of the film, also has a lot of nice features. There are two commentaries, one with writers Robert Wynne-Simmons and Piers Haggard, and with Linda Hayden. We also get an interview with Piers Haggard, and a feature about Linda Hayden titled “An Angel for Satan”.