For me it usually starts with the title, and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) has a doozy; provocative and exploitative, it evokes images of rituals, bloodlust, and other sundry delights. And sometimes the stars align, the film more or less living up to the promise of the title, or at least to the promise of the promise (oh, how we romanticize our genre).
Released by Cannon Releasing Corp. Stateside in April and by its own Tigon Pictures in the U.K. in July, The Blood on Satan’s Claw didn’t do well; Tigon had a hit with The Witchfinder General (1968) with Vincent Price, and were looking to replicate that success. (Apparently if you’d like to make a successful Vincent Price movie, you need Vincent Price. Weird.) Regardless of its fate, The Blood on Satan’s Claw is an effective example of folk-horror, killer kids, and some light Satanism, as a treat.
We open on a field in early 18th Century England, as Ralph (Barry Andrews - The Spy Who Loved Me) ploughs the rocks and dirt before coming across a buried skull with one eyeball still in place. He races back to the village to tell The Judge (Patrick Wymark - Where Eagles Dare), who reluctantly agrees to go back with Ralph, but when they return the remains have been removed. Meanwhile, Peter Edmonton (Simon Williams - The Uncanny) has returned to the village to be married; staying with his aunt, his fiancee is met with a rather frigid shoulder and is forced to sleep in the attic, apart from her soon to be husband (after all, they aren’t legal - yet). One blood curdling scream later, Peter’s aunt finds herself on the wrong end of a newly acquired set of talons from his newly crazed fiancee, who is carted away to the local asylum, madness in her eyes.
After her kitty scratches, Peter’s now very sick aunt gets up in the middle of the night and is never seen again; The Judge heads back to London but gives orders to call him back should the “evil” in the village start to take over. Naturally, once The Judge leaves, the village starts weaving hand baskets for their trip; the teens find a small bag of bones where Ralph originally saw the body and soon find themselves thinning their own ranks, as well as seducing the reverend (naughty, naughty) and falsely accusing him of rape. They’re working fast to return their demon Behemoth back to earth; one more sacrifice and their master will rise again. Will The Judge come back to save the day?
The Blood on Satan’s Claw (aka Satan’s Skin) almost feels like the kid at the back of the class who no one talks to, but is secretly cooler than everyone else; it isn’t thought of in the same breath as something like The Wicker Man (1973), yet that film only amplifies Claw’s Death By Innocence motif. The teens of Claw are the perfect subjects to be our antagonists; no baggage, fresh meat for the underlord to put forth his sins upon the world. Or something like that. I do know that making them teens allows some exploitation to creep in; lead bad apple Angel (Linda Hayden - The Boys from Brazil) disrobes to tempt Reverend Fallowfield (Anthony Ainley - The Land That Time Forgot) to “come play with us”.
The games however, are rife with such pitfalls as hangin’and pitchforkin’. Not exactly Mother Goose, but I don’t think that’s what writer/director Piers Haggard (Venom) had in mind anyway; no, Haggard seems eager to push the boundaries just enough with Claw without drawing too much attention to itself. The film is lurid by nature, but isn’t graphic - Haggard teases the violence as much as he does the sex, choosing instead to keep everything surface level and nearly discreet; no gruesome torture chambers or drawn out rack jobs means the film loses an opportunity to skewer the insidious underpinnings of Catholic Church “justice”. Claw doesn’t partake in the satire lurking in the material; there is no dressing down of the elite class. As a matter of fact, the wealthy are the only ones who can help, with the funds and access to demon-slaying swords, as an unrelated, random example.
Speaking of that sword, the ending is really the only disappointing thing about The Blood on Satan’s Claw; we get a whole lot of buildup for a showdown that lasts ten seconds, if that. Oh well. Up until that point, some solid performances and fast paced action keep it abreast - and competitive - of the likes of Hammer and Amicus. And while The Blood on Satan’s Claw doesn’t swim in subtext like the best work from those houses, it proves that the trappings are rich enough that you don’t even miss it. Better keep that title, though.
The Blood on Satan’s Claw is available on Blu-ray from Sony and is streaming on Shudder.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE CORRUPTION OF CHRIS MILLER (1973)