Satan's Infectious Taint

by Arthur B

Blood On Satan's Claw is - unfairly - the most overlooked of the three major "folk horror" movies of the late 1960s/early 1970s.
It’s somewhere in the English countryside, somewhere in the first half or so of the 18th Century. (A treasonous Jacobite toast made at one point to “his Catholic Majesty James III” means it must be somewhere between 1701 and 1766.) Ploughman Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews) is tilling the fields when he uncovers a corpse - too human to be an animal, too inhuman to be holy. He rushes to tell the Judge (Patrick Wymark), who’s visiting with Gower’s landlady Isobel Banham (Avice Landone), but when they come back to the field the body is gone.

The Judge puts the nonsense out of mind, and in any respect is too caught up giving moral support to Isobel, who deeply disapproves of her nephew Peter Edmonton (Simon Williams) making plans to marry Rosalind Barton (Tamara Ustinov). And yet, it seems that the thing from the field, or at least a part of it, must have followed Ralph to the Banham house - for when she’s dispatched to sleep in the musty old Banham attic, Rosalind has an encounter with something up there - something which reduces her to shrieking, scratching panic at first. By the morning, she’s eerily silent… and her right hand has turned into a hideous claw.

Rosalind gets taken away by the authorities. But out there in the fields, where Ralph farms for his meals, the local youth turn up another claw, remarkably similar to that which grew on Rosalind. Young Angel Blake (Linda Heyden), who first discovers the claw, becomes the centre of a cult - a cult whose members all undergo physical transformations and changes as a result of their exposure to the strange claw. As the cult sweeps among the local youth, will the Judge discover how to put things aright… or will the area be reduced to teenage wasteland?

Produced by Tigon films during their bid to give Hammer a run for their money, The Blood On Satan’s Claw has become part of the classic triptych of folk horror movies from the period - the others being Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man. The nature of the horror is interestingly ambiguous. Despite the title and the way the Judge and others are able to turn up evidence in old books of folklore and demonology, as well as the overtly anti-Christian nature of the cult and the demonic nature of their prayers to Behemoth, the way the claw’s influence spreads through physical contact like a disease makes it seem more like something alien than a spiritual matter. One of the terrifying things is how quickly the infection spreads - one moment Angel and a couple of friends are finding the claw in a field, the next half their Sunday school class are surreptitiously passing the claw around between them - and a very plausible Quatermass and the Pit-esque reading could be that the creature is an alien that is trying to reconstitute itself in part from flesh grown on infected humans.

There’s a generational angle to things, with the cult spreading fastest among the youth of the area, and in particular a certain hypocrisy being in evidence in the elder generation; Isobel and the Judge clearly have some sort of intimacy not sanctified by the bond of marriage going on, for instance, and yet at the same time disapprove of Peter and Rosalind’s perfectly innocent wish to be married themselves. Angel’s overtly sexual attempt to draw the local vicar into the cult would not work unless he had some sort of deeply improper attraction towards his young charges. At the same time, it isn’t exclusively a crude young vs. old thing - by the midway point there’s some elderly members of the cult to, who by their bearing seem to be in the grips of infirmity or dementia. Those adults who are in places of power and authority, on the other hand, don’t seem to be recruited - though a token bid is made - the cult preferring to fool and manipulate them instead.

All this, then, isn’t just a backlash to the hippy generation but a more nuanced criticism - of the way the legitimate hopes and objections and protests of the 1960s generation got hijacked by useless hedonism and psychedelic navel-gazing in general, and in particular the way groups ranging from the People’s Temple to the Scientologists to the Process Church had latched onto the counter-culture for the sake of recruiting people into their own power structures, at least as abusive and often far more so than those of conventional society. (The response of the public to the cult’s outrages doesn’t exactly cover them in glory either - at one a woman is half-drowned by villagers, driven to hysteria by the allegations of witchcraft.)

The movie also includes one of the most horrifying rape sequences I’ve seen in 1970s horror - and for once it’s horrifying in a “properly scary set piece in a horror movie” way, rather than a “horribly clueless perpetuation of rape culture” sort of way. Despite in many ways following the bodice-ripping conventions of rape scenes of the era, it genuinely doesn’t read like an attempt to titillate the audience; it’s a vicious human sacrifice ritual delivered in a strange, stilted manner, which by and large makes the proceedings seem horrific above and beyond the overt nastiness of what’s being done to the victims and creates the impression that it’s serving an agenda other than human sexuality.

For all the artfulness of most of the film, it’s not perfect. The clumsy execution of the creature in the final scene is a bit jarring. On top of that, it’s dispatched in a way which seems rather too simple and easy, and it’s far from clear why dispatching the creature necessarily lets those it’s infected off the hook. It’s as though there’s a missing scene on a cutting room floor somewhere explaining why the Judge’s big fancy sword is especially effective for this purpose, and why killing the main creature releases its thralls.

Nonetheless, everything leading up to that abrupt ending is powerful and haunting, and the ending is so slight that it doesn’t stick in the memory, which might be why the movie still retains the power it does despite failing to stick the landing: the evil wrought by Satan’s claw stays fresh and raw in the mind, and the viewer is left far from convinced that they actually saw it defeated.

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at 12:36 on 2019-03-21
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