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Review: The Blood On Satan’s Claw Is A Very Unnerving British Horror

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It’s unfair that the Wicker Man, a similar example of “folk horror” has achieved such iconic cultural status while The Blood on Satan’s Claw has been left more or less forgotten. It deserves recognition as one of the great British horrors of the 1970’s.

Set in an 18th century countryside community, a demonic plague infects villagers with “Devil’s Skin”. Those afflicted form a satanic cult and begin practicing dark rituals involving rape and murder.

Despite the titillating premise it is never sleazy like the exploitation films that came out of America at the time. Linda Hayden plays seductive cult leader Angel with sensuality, feigned innocence and a winking sense of mischief. The scenes of sexual violence are intensely uncomfortable and horrific. The victims are sympathetic innocents who we spend plenty of time getting to know. Their deaths emotionally impact other non-cult members of the village who we also feel sorry for.

The film opens with a creeping, haunting score by Marc Wilkinson. It adds so much depth to the movie overall and the incidental music throughout gives scenes a strangely beautiful and foreboding quality. The opening scene involving the discovery of a demonic skull is unnerving in a very British way. Another sequence showing the removal of Devil’s Skin is probably the most impressive special effect. One scene revealing a physical of symptom the plague was particularly shocking, unexpected and surreally nightmarish. However, typical of occult films of the time the more overt demonic images can look a bit silly to modern viewers.

It appears to have been filmed around the ensemble cast’s differing schedules. Characters are introduced then leave for a time. New, somewhat unnecessary (but very well portrayed) characters appear and fill in for the roles left behind. This means we don’t really get a sense of development or resolution in the characters we follow. For instance a major character loses a limb in blood-gushing fashion. We’re to assume this will affect the film’s direction significantly. Yet the plot progresses without them only for them to reappear towards the end for nothing more than a subtle visual gag involving their stump. Despite the yo-yoing of characters the plot works. However the third act feels rushed as does the final scene.

Even though there may be too many characters they are all masterfully played. Patrick Wymark plays the cold, sometimes callous town Judge. On paper he seems completely unlikeable yet Wymark elevates him somewhat into a reluctant Van Helsing figure. Linda Hayden, Michele Dotrice, Wendy Padbury and Tamara Ustinov deserve praise for doing so much with the screen time they are given.

It has the Wicker Man’s sense of isolation and conspiracy, the 18th century aesthetic of the Witchfinder General and overt satanism of the Devil Rides Out with a pinch of body horror mixed in.

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