Britain's Got Talons
One of the unavoidable facts of modern life is that many of us are still in a kind of transitional phase, not completely sure what shape life is going to take once the current tribulation has receded. Where are we going to live, how are we going to earn a living, and (most importantly, of course) where are we going to see obscure movies on the big screen? Will any of the independents be in a position to re-open? Will there be enough of a demand for this kind of cinema?
One of the many reasons why I always found my local art-house cinema, the Phoenix in Jericho, to be so cherishable, was its capacity to put on a genuinely surprising range of films: whether they be five-hour-long silent biographies of Napoleon, or semi-documentaries about the Afghan rap scene. The prize for most unexpected revival, however, must go to the decision to show, in the Sunday lunchtime golden oldie slot (usually home to things like West Side Story and Casablanca), as part of a season of films for Christmas, Piers Haggard's cult favourite The Blood on Satan's Claw, originally unleashed upon the world in 1970 (also known as Satan's Skin in the USA).
This is the kind of film which the average person takes one look at and says 'Hammer Horror,' which is an understandable mistake to make. It is in fact the work of Tigon Films, a company which (along with Amicus) was one of Hammer's main competitors in the late 60s and early 70s. Tigon's reputation these days is mainly due to its being responsible for Michael Reeves' Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan's Claw, two films which generally get lumped together with Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man as part of a subgenre known as 'folk horror', although if you ask me the best category for these films would be called 'Films which are difficult to categorise' – Bertrand Russell would surely approve. (Blood on Satan's Claw was, apparently, appearing at the Phoenix as part of a season of films 'inspired by' the ghost stories of Charles Dickens and M.R. James – and there is something oddly Jamesean about its preoccupation with atmosphere and insidious dread.)
Our juvenile lead for Blood on Satan's Claw is Ralph Gower, doughty ploughman at an unnamed village somewhere in Mummerset in the 18th century. He is played by Barry Andrews, who appears to be wearing one of those permed wigs that make people look like one of Harry Enfield's Scousers – this at least distracts from Andrews' unsettling resemblance to a young Hugh Grant. I should mention that Andrews is far from alone in making interesting choices in the tonsorial department – there is such an extravagant festival of fake hair on display throughout that Blood on Satan's Claw should really have been made by Wig-on, not Tigon.
Well, Ralph is busy ploughing one day when he turns up a deformed, furred skull, that of neither man nor beast (and still with an eyeball intact – the first of many grotesque flourishes). Not wanting to touch the thing, he pops off to fetch the local judge (Patrick Wymark), only to find it has disappeared when they return. The judge dismisses it as superstition to begin with, but then strange events start to sweep the village: a young woman goes mad overnight, and when she is dragged off to bedlam one of her hands is found to have been replaced by a hideous claw. Her fiance (Simon Williams) in turn hacks off one of his own hands while in the grip of a terrifying hallucination. A strange affliction begins to trouble the young people of the village, some of whom form a mysterious cult led by the comely Angel Blake (Linda Hayden). Violent death and horror ensue as the demonic force plaguing the village grows in strength…
To be perfectly honest, the plot of Blood on Satan's Claw does not strictly speaking make a great deal of sense, in coldly logical terms anyway. Instead, there is an almost impressionistic succession of scenes and images, working together to build up an almost tangible sense of unease and disquiet, punctuated by disturbing outbursts of quasi-erotica and gory violence. This film doesn't have the cachet of either The Wicker Man or Witchfinder General, but you can detect its DNA in nearly anything made by Ben Wheatley, for instance.
What really makes this film distinctive, when on paper it sounds rather like just another low-budget Hammer Horror clone? Well, to answer that, I will say that Hammer started off as a 'respectable' film company, and their early horror films in particular are almost ridiculously genteel and well-mannered. There's an argument to be made that Hammer's best films are all essentially classic British costume dramas with just enough horror and sex added to satiate the audience of an exploitation movie. Blood on Satan's Claw is considerably less polite: it tackles the exploitation elements with a ghastly, full-on enthusiasm and relish. There's little in the Hammer annals with anything like the shock value of the sequence in which Wendy Padbury's character is lured to her eventual death.
That it is so effective is mostly down to Piers Haggard's direction, which brilliantly juxtaposes a sense of bucolic innocence with the supernatural threat – Marc Wilkinson's dreamy, unsettling score is also a major plus. The strengths of the film are more than sufficient to offset its weaknesses – a clearly tiny budget, for one thing. The climax, too, is clearly dependent on camera effects and rousing music to try and make up for the sheer crapulousness of the monster suit involved.
The openly supernatural tone and nature of the film is one of the things that distinguishes it from the other well-known folk horror movies and adds to the apparent similarity to more mainstream horror films. It also has a touch of Gothic about it in a way the other folk horrors don't (ancient evil resurfaces to threaten an enlightened modern world), and also, perhaps, a bit of a subtext about the generation gap – the evil and corruption spreading like a disease seems mostly limited to the younger members of the community, while it falls to one of their wiser elders to sort everything out.
That said, there is something deeply disquieting about the judge, the character who in a Hammer film would probably be played by Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee (apparently Cushing wasn't available and Lee was too expensive). Wymark's character is cold and ruthless – 'You must have patience, even while people die… Only thus can the whole evil be destroyed… you must let it grow' is his cheery message at one point, while later he promises 'I shall use undreamed-of measures to conquer the evil!' (The 'undreamed-of measures' turn out to be a damn great sword, which for some reason the judge carries around wrapped in a floral blanket until it's time to go into action.) In short, even the good guys in this film are sort of a bit frightening and evil. For all its presumably cheerful conclusion, with evil banished, one is left profoundly disquieted by the whole thing. Which was presumably the intention.
Probably about a dozen people turned up to watch West Side Story the last time it was revived at the Phoenix – it was very gratifying to see about twenty people coming out to enjoy Blood on Satan's Claw on the big screen. This movie has lost none of its entrancing, unsettling power – it's as marvellously, deliriously nasty as it was when it was first released. Fingers crossed there will still be cinemas around showing this kind of film in years to come.