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Hail, Behemoth: Piers Haggard’s ‘The Blood on Satan’s Claw’ Turns 50



Hail, Behemoth: Piers Haggard's 'The Blood on Satan’s Claw' Turns 50

Sometimes a filmmaker does everything right in producing a horror movie. The story is well told, the production values are quite good, and the imagery is both powerful and memorable. And yet, the film fails to produce the desired numbers at the box office. The movie simply fails to catch on with fans, at least not during its initial theatrical run.

One such example is The Blood on Satan’s Claw, a film that will celebrate its 50th anniversary in April. Released in New York City on April 14, 1971, the movie easily ranks as one of the better horror films of 1971, a strong year for the genre. Putting quality aside, The Blood on Satan’s Claw failed to make much money for Tigon British Film Productions, a small, short-lived studio that produced films from 1967 to 1973. Most notably, Tigon produced 1968’s Witchfinder General, a very good film that starred Vincent Price as the horrific real-life witch hunter, Matthew Hopkins. While Witchfinder General did well for the studio, The Blood on Satan’s Claw floundered, even though it is likely the better film.

So why did The Blood on Satan’s Claw not produce big numbers at the box office? Perhaps it was the lack of a headlining star, someone like a Price or a Christopher Lee (who would co-star with Peter Cushing in the studio’s 1973 effort, The Creeping Flesh), that doomed the film to box office mediocrity. Or maybe the studio didn’t have the budge to promote the movie properly. Or perhaps the controversial nature of the film, with its graphic theme of satanic worship and violent imagery, held down potential interest. It’s reasonable to think that all of these factors contributed to the film’s lackluster showing in theaters, particularly during its American release.

The Blood on Satan’s Claw Creature

Fortunately, The Blood on Satan’s Claw found its audience in due time. It would eventually render an impact on fans who watched it on television stations (such as Turner Classic Movies), on DVD, YouTube, or on one of the growing number of streaming services. While still not as fully appreciated as it should be, the film is now recognized as a significant piece of folk horror, a category that also includes Witchfinder General and the later film from 1973, The Wicker Man. It has become something of a mini-cult classic, a production that dared to venture into the worlds of witchcraft and devil worship while challenging some of the standards of what horror films could (and should) do in the early 1970s.

Initially known as Satan’s Skin (a name that director Piers Haggard preferred), the film’s name was changed to The Blood on Satan’s Claw for its American release. Set in a rural village in 18th century England, the story begins with a farmer discovering the buried remains of what he believes to be a demon, or as he puts it, “a fiend.” It is a strange skull – deformed and featuring one eye intact, along with a patch of fur – and appears to have come from something other than human origins. Shortly after the farmer’s discovery, a young woman sprouts a horrific claw in place of her hand, prompting concern on the part of her fiancée. And then three children, including a young girl named Angel Blake, discover a partially buried ancient claw, which might just be from the same remains as the deformed skull.

Not long after these developments, the children in the village begin to act oddly. Their behavior quickly turns violent, as they commit a series of crimes, culminating in brutal rapes and bloody murders. Is it the discovery of the demon artifacts that has caused this behavior? And why have the otherwise innocent children fallen under the influence of a young witch who has emerged as the leader of a local coven?

The Blood on Satan’s Claw Linda Hayden

The top-billed star of the mostly little-known cast is Patrick Wymark, a well-regarded British actor with a strong stable of film appearances in the 1960s, including a supporting role in Witchfinder General. The Blood on Satan’s Claw would turn out to be his final major film role, as he takes on the character of The Judge, a kind of reluctant witch hunter who must determine the source of the Satanism that has taken over the children. Wymark is excellent in his portrayal, giving the witchfinding Judge an approach that is stern and intense, but also heroic. In many ways, he is the complete opposite of the corrupt and brutal Matthew Hopkins, as depicted by Price in Witchfinder General.

Tragically, Wymark died suddenly of a heart attack in October of 1970, shortly after production wrapped and only six months before the film’s release. A talented and experienced Shakespearean actor who seemingly had a substantial career in front of him, Wymark was still a young man, though different sources yield different dates of birth. He was either 44 or 50 years old, though his physical appearance indicated that he was the older of the two ages. Either way, Wymark was taken far too soon, denying us of seeing his talent for what might have been a lengthy tenure.

A second excellent performance is turned in by Linda Hayden, the young actress portraying Angel Blake, the teenaged witch who is anything but angelic. (Clearly, this is not the title character from “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” nor the beloved Samantha from “Bewitched”.) In making only her third feature film appearance, Hayden is devious, provocative and completely evil in the way that she overtakes the minds of the village’s children. As well as Hayden played her part, her presence in the film created controversy. She was only 17 at the time of filming, but appears completely nude in one scene as she attempts to seduce a local priest. Haggard has defended the decision to have Hayden appear nude, describing her as “a very good actress who had no problem with nudity whatsoever.”

The Blood on Satan’s Claw Photo

Hayden would go on to a fairly long but sporadic career in film and TV, including a small role in Madhouse, the Vincent Price film from 1974. Somewhat surprisingly, she never became the star that some had envisioned, compiling only 44 credits before retiring from the industry in 2012.

The use of Hayden in a nude scene, with a priest no less, exhibits how The Blood on Satan’s Claw is not intended for the meek or squeamish. There are several other controversial scenes, including one that depicts a rape, something that was not shown often in films at the time. Another scene involved the rather graphic removal of deformed skin from an alleged witch. Under today’s standards, such material might seem par for the course, but in the early 1970s, it was still controversial, at a time when directors were pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in a horror film.

If the film has a significant flaw, it is a storyline that is somewhat confusing and disjointed, as the emphasis shifts awkwardly from the young man’s fiancée, who has suddenly become bewitched, to the more central story involving Angel Blake and her attempted takeover of the village. This was a direct result of the original plan for the film, which was to present three separate stories and then have them linked to satanic worship. But a rewrite of the script altered that plan, forcing Haggard to combine the three divergent stories into one central plot. Other than that shortcoming, the film ranks as a triumph for director Haggard, now retired after making a final TV directing credit in 2006.

The Blood on Satan’s Claw does begin slowly, with relatively little of consequence happening over the first 15 minutes. But then the story picks up in speed and intensity, and remains so for the rest of the movie. It all leads up to a very strong and dramatic conclusion, perhaps a bit rushed, but still decisive and blunt, one that leaves little doubt with the viewer as to what has happened. The climax is portrayed partially through slow motion effect, something that was rarely used at the time, but was quite effectively employed by Haggard.

Fifty years after its release, The Blood on Satan’s Claw is the rare film that lives up to its creative title. It remains a film that should be seen by anyone considering themselves to be a diehard horror fan, or perhaps a horror historian. It is nicely scored and beautifully photographed, with some wonderful outdoor scenery providing an effective backdrop for a story of folk horror. It is creepy, chilling, and intense, a movie that exemplifies the changing nature of horror films in the early 1970s, when witchcraft and satanic worship became popular themes, and directors became far more daring in what they chose to show us.

Be sure to check out more horror content from Bruce on his Facebook page: Ghostly Gallery.



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