Blood on Satan's Claw

Happy Halloween, everyone. This time round, a 1970s chiller usually considered as one of the ‘unholy trinity’ of folk horror films, along with Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man.
Late 17th century England.

A ploughman Ralph (Barry Andrews) is startled when, in the course of his work, he churns up a skull with a gigantic intact eyeball, across which a worm wriggles. It’s hard to tell what kind of animal the skull once belonged to. It resembles a human in some ways and a livestock animal in others.

According to Ralph: ‘It was more like a fiend.’


He feels the need to report on his find to a visiting bigwig – that’s bigwig as in an important person locally, who also wears a big wig as bigwigs did back then. Actually that’s where the term bigwig comes from, isn’t it? I digress. This is a man known as the Judge, after his profession, and he’s played by Patrick Wymark in his final screen appearance. Sceptical, he tells Ralph: ‘Witchcraft is dead and discredited,’ but he is persuaded to take a look, although the skull is gone by the time Ralph shows him the furrow where he’d found it.

The setting here may look as idyllic as a Constable painting but soon it is engulfed in wyrd goings on. Very wyrd goings on.

A young woman suddenly goes mad without any rational explanation, and her hand becomes a disfigured claw . A child, Mark Vespers, disappears and is found dead. Mysterious fur patches begin sprouting on the bodies of some young villagers – ‘the devil’s skin’ as this phenomenon is known as.

Something disturbing is affecting most of the area’s schoolchildren. As their teacher Reverend Fallowfield puts it: ‘There is growing amongst you all an insolent ungodliness which I will not tolerate!’

This warning does little good. Most of them stop attending his classes and take to gathering around an old church in ruins next to the local woods.

Blood on Satan's Claw - Pagan Tribe

Angel Blake, his most rebellious pupil, pays him a midnight visit and attempts to seduce him although he rejects her advances.

Afterwards, at the funeral of Mark, she insists to her father that Fallowfield molested her and attempts to implicate him in the murder of Mark.

Her eyebrows also grow in size and change colour, although I’m still not sure why. Is this to do with the devil’s skin or does she just think it makes her look more fiendishly foxy?

It’s not long before a satanic panic has gripped the village, leading to a clash of the generations. The older folks tend to support the church and law and order, while Angel and her mainly teenage followers take part in pagan rituals and run wild in the country. In fact, by this point Angel does look like she could have just returned from a visit to the first Glastonbury Festival in 1971, the year the film was made.


Blood on Satan’s Claw is very much a product of its time. Pushing the boundaries of sex and violence was in the air, with Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange and Get Carter being only three examples of British movies that courted controversy around the same time.

Inevitably, and I rarely say this, Blood on Satan’s Claw was deservedly given an X-certificate. This was mainly down to a ceremonial rape scene where Cathy, a servant girl who isn’t one of Angel’s cult, is scourged and then gang-raped by members of the new satanic tribe while others leer as they watch on.

As Brian Senn pointed out in his book Twice the Thrills! Twice the Chills! screenplay writer Robert Wynne-Simmons was inspired by equal parts Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and the case of Mary Bell, an eleven year old from Newcastle who had recently murdered two boys aged three and four, showing no remorse afterwards. I doubt rivals Hammer would have ventured into such dark territory for inspiration and this does make the film an even more distinctly queasy watch, even almost fifty years after it was shot.

This is another movie made by Tigon British Film Productions, an independent production and distribution company, that deserves far more than just a footnote in the annals of horror. Founded by Tony Tenser, a man dubbed ‘the Godfather of British Exploitation’, Tigon’s output aimed at a more realistic portrayal of horror then their competitors and Blood on Satan’s Claw is certainly more gruesome than any Hammer movie I can think of. Just try and avoid wincing when a doctor flays a circle of hairy flesh from a female’s thigh, let alone the aforementioned rape scene.

The Blood on Satans Claw still

Director Piers Haggard completed the film on a budget of only £82,000, which even at the dawn of the 1970s was inexpensive by just about any standard. ‘If you stay on budget’ Tony Tenser liked to declare, ‘you stay in business.’

As Hammer floundered financially and artistically as the 1970s progressed, Tenser considered buying the company. A fascinating what-if scenario.

I digress again.

Tigon will be best remembered for Witchfinder General but much of their output is worth seeking out, and Blood on Satan’s Claw is right up there with their best.

Despite this, it wasn’t initially successful although the New York Times did heap praise on it. In Britain and the States, it was teamed up on a double bill with another Tigon horror, The Beast in the Cellar, playing everywhere from drive-ins in New Jersey to Glasgow’s art house cinema, the Cosmo.

Blood on Satan's Claw Glasgow Screening

Over the years its reputation has grown, especially after Mark Gatiss – in his BBC4 A History of Horror series – enthused about it, calling it a ‘folk horror’ – a term originally coined by Haggard.

Okay, some suspension of disbelief may come in useful as the story progresses but there is much to enjoy over the course of its 93 minute run time.

Piers Haggard is an underrated director. He began his career in theatre and worked at the Royal Court, Glasgow Citizens and the National, and was a TV veteran by the time he began work on his cinematic debut, 1970’s Wedding Night.

Here he brings out the best in his cast, no mean feat as many were so young. Linda Hayden is particularly good.

From the very first scene, there’s some inventive camerawork on display. Few films have ever utilised so many low shots, some even being shot by cameras placed in large holes dug up by the crew. A devil’s eye view you could say.

Cinematographer Dick Bush really excels here and would later go on to work on Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975) and Lair of the White Worm (1988).
The film also boasts an exceptional score by Marc Wilkinson, which incorporates the ondes martenot, an early electronic instrument that sounds similar to a theremin, and the cimbalom, which for more than a hundred years has been associated with the Devil.

Footnote: Maybe by coincidence, the decaying church that we see at various points (St. James in Bix, South Oxfordshire) was to be desecrated in 1974, with presumably a number of young people taking part in some black magic rituals and breaking into coffins.

On a happier note, a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2015 has helped preserve the Norman church.