Sunday, 13 December 2015

Folk mystic… The Blood on Satan's Claw (1970)

This is part of a short-lived British “movement” connoisseur Mark Gatis terms as folk horror, but whereas the most obvious other example, The Wicker Man, is entirely earthbound The Blood on Satan's Claw does look to the supernatural. At least it appears to… after all what the audience sees is only what we think the characters see…

Mostly autumn
It has a superb soundtrack from Marc Wilkinson, which sets the tone and whose influence lives on in the music of Ghost Box electronic combos such as The Advisory Circle, The Focus Group and Belbury Poly – who feature excerpts of dialogue and music on The Owl’s Map LP.

Directed by Piers Haggard who also contributed additional material to writer Robert Wynne-Simmons’s script, the film is based in Eighteenth Century England and superbly catches the moment before autumn turns to winter in the gently rolling hills of Oxfordshire (Bix Botton and Black Park were appropriate locations).

A Devil's eye-view
Following a marvellous opening montage of crows and thorns, we find a man Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews) struggling to pull his plough up a steep muddy field. He calls out to a young woman, Cathy Vespers (Wendy Padbury) who waves back, before he sees something odd turned up in the clay. It is a jewel encrusted skull with an eye still in its socket, the only remnant flesh remaining.

In shock he runs off to report the incident to the local Judge Patrick Wymark who seems far less than impressed and all the more so when on returning to the site nothing is found.

Simon and that wig
A young noble man, Peter Edmonton (Simon Williams looking strangely out of place in a wig) arrives with a peasant girl he intends to make his wife,  Rosalind Barton (Tamara Ustinov), who gets short shrift from Mistress Banham (Avice Landon) who owns the property where they will stay. She sends Rosalind to sleep in the “guest room” away from her fiancé for the final night apart… but something horrible happens in the room and by morning Rosalind has lost her mind.

The haunting has begun and after the local doctor (Howard Goorney) can do nothing an horrific incident occurs when Peter sleeps in the same room and hacks his hand off believing it to be the hairy, clawed hand of a devil…

Tamara Ustinov
Standards of proof for devilry must have been somewhat higher than in the time of say The Witchfinder General (set a century or so before) but the Judge is convinced enough to study the doctor’s books… wherein are revealed some familiar takes of hair, claw and devilish apparition. Somethings a foot and, oddly, the Judge decides he must return to the city to study more and to wait the fulsome expression of this sorcery!

Idle hands make light work and there’s more evidence soon enough as the village children turn away from their Sunday school teachings towards more twisted, adult pursuits. They are led by the increasingly un-angelic Angel Blake (Linda Hayden) who was innocently out in the fields when the skull was first found.

Wendy, Linda and Roberta
Strange symptoms appear in the form of demonic crops of hair across the bodies of the villagers, Angel’s eyebrows grow the dark bush of Beelzebub whilst Mark Vespers (Robin Davies) develops a painful patch on his lower back… as if the village is re-growing the body of the unearthed demon piece by piece.

The children play blind man’s bluff with Mark Vespers before he is ritually slain by Angel in an abandoned church yard.

Miss Blake; not angelic in the slightest...
Things escalate as Angel arrives to provide temptation for Reverend Fallowfield (Anthony Ainley) and Sunday school teacher – stripping off in one of the film’s “famous” moments a vision of Blake the priest never expected but one he is just about able to resist.

Angel accuses the cleric of assaulting her after Mark’s funeral and he is arrested by the gullible Squire Middleton (the great James Hayter – such a feature of period TV and film!). But it’s not long before more ill-doings reveal his innocence,

This sort of thing never happened in the Tardis!
Mark’s sister Cathy is the next victim as she is chased by boys in the woods to an abandoned church were all manner of saucy sorcery is afoot as the youngster chant themselves into an ecstasy of satanic arousal before poor Wendy is assaulted and killed.

One of the group, Margaret (Michele Dotrice) is later almost drowned as a witch by a group of farm labourers only to be saved by stout-hearted Ralph Gower who takes her back to the Vesper’s grieving mother. The doctor removes the devil skin from her leg but she’s still caught in the grip of this uncanny power.

Judge dread
Cue the return of the Judge who promises un-told measures to rid the village of the scourge of re-constituting demonic influence. He has an armoured coach, vicious dogs and bald men with fierce stares… if there’s an allegoric element in the film we’re seeing it now.

Yours truly angry mob...
Dusty verdict: The plot is played out so well that what sounds risible on paper is genuinely affecting on screen with acute camera angles, great performances and that music underscoring a persistent unease. This is an unsettling film that builds at pace with violence leading itself onwards to the final conflagration.

You can probably read it on a number of levels but brooding skies and the haunted landscapes of late autumnal Oxfordshire make for an outstanding “mood view” that captures a feeling: the seasons turn and Man is faced with his usual choices. Sometimes, the mask slips and we descend.

Country idyll...
The film is readily available from Amazon or Movie Mail – support the latter, who pay their taxes!

Zoe... sorry, Wendy
I should also mention “the Tardis in the room” for any Whovians reading… not only does Wendy Padbury feature  – a companion to Patrick Troughton’s Doctor – but also Anthony Ainley who played The Master against Peter Davidson and Roberta Tovey who featured as Doctor Peter Cushing’s granddaughter in both his Who films. Oh and Simon Williams was also a UNIT captain in the Sylvester McCoy classic Remembrance of the Daleks… famous for being the first time a Dalek used the stairs!


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