Seemingly running a constant third to Hammer and Amicus in the British film studio stakes of the 1960s and 1970s, Tigon British was a company that nonetheless managed to produce at least a handful of exploitation films, whose reputation has lasted the forty-odd years since their original release, some for their brilliance, others for their ineptitude (see, for example The Blood Beast Terror, which Peter Cushing considered his worst film). Between 1967 and 1977 they were responsible for The Sorcerers (1967), Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), The Blood Beast Terror (1968), Witchfinder General (1968), Zeta One (1969), Virgin Witch (1972), Au Pair Girls (1972), The Creeping Flesh (1973) and the Mary Millington blockbuster Come Play With Me (1977), as well as Blood on Satan’s Claw , (AKA Satan’s Skin) in 1971, amongst many others.
Tigon, owned by Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser, emerged from a company named Compton-Tekli that had produced Roman Polanski’s superb Repulsion, after which Tenser left and formed Tony Tenser Films, later renamed Tigon British Films. They employed the young Michael Reeves who directed The Sorcerers and his superb last film, Witchfinder General.
Written by Robert Wynne-Simmons and directed by Piers Haggard, Blood On Satan’s Claw is certainly one of Tigon’s best films, and indeed, one of the best films of the era. An eerie period gothic (or as Mark Gattis would have it, “folk horror”), the film contains plenty of genuinely creepy and disturbing moments along with the commercially essential sex and gore.
Set towards the end of the 17th Century, Blood on Satan's Claw contrasts the rural beauty of the English countryside with witchcraft and bizarre rituals resulting in rape and murder.
Young ploughman Ralph (Barry Andrews) unearths a mysterious fragment of demonic skull, which he promptly reports it to a visiting London Judge (Peter Wymark). Ralph persuades the Judge to return to the spot, but the rotting remains have disappeared.
The Judge, intensly sceptical about witchcraft and reminded of the hysteria of the European with-hunts of the 16th Century, considers it to be superstitious, peasant nonsense. At his lodgings in the village, the inn-keepers nephew Peter (Simon Williams) arrives with a girl he intends to marry, a farmer’s daughter, who is scorned by his aunt and the Judge and ordered to stay in the attic room. Sensing a malignant presence in her room, she seems to be driven insane and having attacked Peter’s aunt, is dragged from her room. Gazing psychotically at Peter, he notices her hand has been transformed into a grotesque claw! The girl is removed to an asylum but a strange, unspeakable horror now creeps throughout the isolated hamlet and surrounding countryside, weirdness ensues, all of it involving a young girl named Angel Blake (Linda Hayden). Soon, children are being found dead and the villagers begin to suspect witchcraft. The Judge is given an old grimoire by the local quack, which he takes back to London to study, realising that what he suspected was peasant superstition, is a real and alarming manifestation of evil.
As with Tigon’s earlier Witchfinder General, the lush landscape of rural green fields and sprawling woodland, morning mists and gnarled old trees are used to great effect by photographer Dick Bush who stays well away from the cliché (of the time) day-to-night trick photography. Contrasting superbly with this rural beauty is the shocking ritualised rape and murder of innocent Cathy Vespers (former Doctor Who assistant, Wendy Padbury). The locations are superb, The ruined church at Bix Bottom in Oxfordshire and Black Park near Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire, as well as at Pinewood Film Studios, supply ample scope for debut director Piers Haggard to weave this macabre tale.
The film’s suggestion that the old religion of the Coven is emanating from the earth, is sustained by clever camerawork, lots of low shots and high angles succeed in imbuing the film with a certain paranoid claustrophobia and genuine tension, as if the landscape itself is alive, watching and waiting. A feeling which is only enhanced further by the film's soundtrack, composed by Marc Wilkinson.
Although there are some very bloody scenes - Edward butchering his own hand after a horrifying hallucination and the removal of ‘Satan’s skin’ from the leg of Michelle (Betty in 'Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em') Dotrice are pretty extreme for the time, though often Haggard goes for the build-up and cuts away from the gore.
At the heart of the film are two excellent performances. The young Linda Hayden’s (who had debuted in Baby Love (1968), and was also in Hammer’s Taste The Blood Of Dracula (1970)), character Angel is rendered with great skill both in her naked seduction of the village curate (Anthony Ainley) and as she manipulates and controls her teenage coven, driving them on to rape and murder. Hayden never really fulfilled the promise she shows here, though she did go on to make the ‘Eye of Agamotto’ favourites; Confessions of a Window Cleaner, Confessions from a Holiday Camp, Let's Get Laid, The Boys from Brazil and the only British ‘Video Nasty’, Exposé.
The other stand out performance is that of Patrick Wymark, a familiar face in movies, including Repulsion and Witchfinder General in which he played Oliver Cromwell. Once again Blood on Satan’s Claw deviates from other witch-hunt films as Wymark’s Judge is not some religious pervert on a crusade to crush the Satanic evil of young girls and women who he judges to have committed acts of witchcraft. His Judge is quick to shun such superstitious clap trap. Until he finds that the terror that has been unleashed upon the village is very real. Only then does he resort to the doctor’s grimoire to combat the occult power, encamped in the woodland.
Blood On Satan’s Claw is a superb British Horror film that takes the peaceful, lush green, English landscape and makes it its stage, enabling the foul and depraved antics of the young residents to appear all the more disturbing and shocking.
It’s serious approach to the subject of Witchcraft, which in the 1960s and 1970s was undergoing a serious and widespread revival, is fascinating, and well above the level of pseudo Christian propaganda churned out by most US releases along the same theme. Eschewing the high camp of other occult themed thrillers, everything here is played straight and the film is all the better for it. Now, more than forty years on, it stands as one of the great British horror films of the early 1970s. A true classic!
As for the DVD - An uncensored, widescreen UK DVD release was released in 2010 by Odeon Entertainment, the film deserves far more than the usual and frankly pathetic trailer and stills gallery combo. It’s a real shame that Anchor Bay’s commentary by Linda Hayden, Piers Haggard and writer Robert Wynne-Simmons on the Region 1 DVD/Tigon coffin boxset, isn’t included. Nor is the Mark Gattis, Jeremy Dyson and Reece Sheersmith for that matter! But, that said the R2 UK disc does include the original mono soundtrack as an option (along with the 5.1 surround) not included on the previous DVDs.
Little Shoppe of Horrors No. 25: The Journal of Classic British Horror Films Mag
, Edited by Richard Klemensen, contains an enormous amount of information on the making of 'Blood on Satan's Claw' written by genre scholar, filmmaker and writer Bruce G Hallenbeck, and is HIGHLY recommended. It's available here in the UK from Hemlock Books and in the US, direct from Richard Klemensen here.
The Odeon Entertainment DVD is available from Amazon.co.uk , but if you're broke or are exceptionally tight fisted with money - you can watch it FREE on You Tube...