Welcome back to Let’s Scare Bryan to Death, where this month we’re going OG folk horror with the 1971 Piers Haggard film, The Blood On Satan’s Claw. Our guide this month is Chandler Bullock, who in addition to having bylines at Dread Central, We Are Horror, Morbidly Beautiful, and Film Cred, also created The Beauty of Horror podcast to explore “the unsettling beauty found in the horror genre.” Bullock takes a very thorough but accessible approach to explaining how we can find the macabre to be attractive, and I’m excited to incorporate that into a discussion about a subgenre known for its contrast of traditionally pleasant aesthetics with more horrific elements.
Directed by Piers Haggard, The Blood on Satan’s Claw takes place in a small 18th-century English village, where farmer Ralph (Barry Andrews) accidentally unearths some ghastly remains in one of the fields. While the local Judge (Patrick Wymark) disregards Ralph’s worries about the remains as superstition, villagers who come in contact with them, particularly a malicious-looking claw, start acting strangely. And by strangely I mean they attack other villagers and/or try to pull into their creepy demon cult. Young Angel (Linda Hayden) leads the cult as a means to bring about the return of a demonic entity. As more and more townspeople are caught in the demon’s thrall, the town falls into chaos as some of the villagers resort to barbaric attempts to suss out the cult members. It comes down to Ralph and the Judge as they search for a way to defeat the demon before the entire town is lost.
In the fantastic folk horror documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, Kier-la Janisse lists The Blood on Satan’s Claw as one of the Unholy Trinity, along with 1968’s Witchfinder General and 1973’s The Wicker Man. While I’d seen the latter two, I’d never actually gotten around to The Blood on Satan’s Claw, so I jumped at the chance to discuss it with Bullock, who recalls seeing it for the first time while doing research for an academic paper (and, as always, Spoiler Warning for those who haven’t seen the movie as we’ll be discussing major plot points).
I was getting into folk horror because my original MA thesis topic (which I'm still working on at the moment) was on the wilderness in American horror fiction, especially American folk horror. So I had to do some brush-up work on folk horror in general, and of course that name keeps popping up when you're talking about folk horror. I’d seen The Witch, I'd seen some of the more modern things, but I hadn’t given the old ‘60s and ‘70s British films a chance. I think it was when I was getting real sick [that I watched it]. I have a tendency to watch old smutty stuff when I get sick.
It's just so fast-paced that I remember being blown away, just sitting there staring at it. And by the time the credits were rolling I was like, “Damn that was everything in one movie.” They don't leave you much time to breathe, which I think serves the movie quite well. Nowadays they like slow burn for folk horror. I like that they just decided to show the hysteria and mania that more conservative little villages are gonna get if you just do something slightly off-kilter. And they show how ridiculously over the top their situation is, and people are responding in-kind. I thought it was a good time.
While it certainly does present a more frenetic pace than the folk horror released today, it’s hard to deny the film as quintessential folk horror as it explores the conflict between modern (in this case relative to the 1700s) and more ancient philosophy as well as the strained relationship that people have with the land. Bullock describes how the film asserts itself as folk horror while also distinguishing itself from the other films of the Unholy Trinity.
Witchfinder General is more about this nihilistic look at humanity and the way we treat each other. It's more of a social deal by focusing on positions of power, and it supports more open mindedness and views on other forms of thought and spirituality than just puritanical Christianity. Wicker Man is also celebrating that, but showing a darker side to it as well. You know, if you're going to celebrate paganism you need to know that some of them performed sacrifices. Blood on Satan’s Claw I think is a nice healthy mix. It blurs the line between what is good and what is evil. What would have happened if bringing back Satan had actually come to be? We don't really know what happens to anybody afterwards, we don't know the plan. We just know that pretty horrible things are happening to them while they're alive, so it's got a shock. It's kind of got a “cottage core” vibe to it, if you will.
And what makes it such a good folk horror film is that it's very strongly about the anxieties of the time for the country. It's 1971 in England, the conservative kick there was really picking up. We're just about a decade away from Thatcher kicking into the UK so you can see that progression was taking place, navigating tradition versus what does tradition mean to the UK? And I like that they try to explore that, and that tradition could mean barbarism, just being paranoid and hating each other because this is how it used to be. Then they’re also telling an entertaining story and scaring you at the same time. I think that's where folk horror does best. You can be entertained but are also taught something about the landscape of where it's set.
This is definitely a film that seems to live in a gray area, where in one scene those in authority are portrayed as selfish and condescending and those in the cult are looking for an alternative approach to living their lives. In another scene, however, the cultists are showing their darker sides with murder, mutilation, and sexual assault, leaving the authorities as the only line of defense for the village. So my question for Bullock is, can we actually identify a protagonist, or even a lead character? Is the film more of an ensemble piece of sorts?
That's such a good question. I would say that there's no protagonist, but I do think your lead character is Angel. She's building this entire commune, this cult, around her. She's kind of thrust into it by a simple little action. I always wondered how Angel got possessed. Was it just the evil choosing the most chaste person to make them the most deviant person in the town? But actually there's a very subtle moment, that maybe my stupid eyes just didn't catch until this viewing, when the kids are playing outside in the field she trips and she stands up. She had scraped her finger on the claw that was on the ground, and she's smiling at it until one of the boys touches her and she says, “Oh tag you're it” and then she runs away. And that's when she slowly starts to get possessed. So it's actually quite a moment of pure folly where she ends up being this cult leader.
I would put her in the position of protagonist to an extent, but it's one of those films that I don't know if I call it an ensemble piece because normally with an ensemble piece you give everybody equal time. It's just the group. But there's so many different factions and groups in the film, it's kind of like how Wes Craven has his love of going “this is your protagonist…psych, we're gonna go over here and this is your protagonist?” In this movie every time you think that this is [the protagonist] either they kill them, they leave, or they just shift focus to somebody else. But I will say that from my perspective Angel is the one that keeps getting the camera back on her, keeps having the story progress with her.
That shift in focus actually makes a lot of sense when considered in the context that the film was first written as an anthology, with separate vignettes connected by the claw. But while the plot may shift focus, one thing that weaves through the entire film is that distilled folk horror aesthetic that would go on to influence a lot of other films in the genre.
One of the best images that also makes it such a grandparent of all folk films is if you look at something like Midsommar or even The Wicker Man, you always have that nice big flowery ending that shows the ritualistic side of things. And [in Blood on Satan’s Claw] we have all of the cult members with different body parts cut off, but then flowers coming out of their arm or these wreaths around their head where their eye has been removed. And little details like that, that grotesqueness of it all is something that just makes it such a powerful film.
In addition to the quintessential folk horror elements, I noticed some aspects that were very similar to the fears that would come up in the Satanic Panic in the United States a decade later where traditional values were allegedly under attack from a nationwide network of devil worshippers. Bullock picked up on those elements in the film as well.
It's kind of an interesting thing, I think they were already kind of going through [a Satanic Panic] in the UK, because you had Black Sabbath popping up. You had your punk scene already picking up with anarchist, progressive, and extremist ideals that were really shaking up the conservative system there. So the pearl-clutching was already extremely tight in the UK, and I think that this movie was on a pulse that it didn't even know that it was on. Because how could we have predicted that ten years later America was going to look at the UK and say “hold my beer,” and it was going to show up like “everything is Satanic.”
The question then becomes, if this is a film that serves as a precursor to the fears on display in the Satanic Panic, is it portraying them in a way that refutes those fears or emphasizes them? As Bullock observes, the answer to that is a bit murky.
I could see that maybe this was trying to show a middle ground, and show how hazy everything kind of is. Because you have the conservatives, who are only the good guys because they are the ones who are very proactive about stopping the things they don't agree with, sort of like the enemy of my enemy is sometimes the right person to go to to stop a bad situation…but I would say at what cost? Because they are also tying in with people who were just going to stop every single thing that they wanted to. All these kids wanted to do was just explore themselves, and they were being told by a priest that they needed to behave and it led to horrible events. I feel that if you want to find a point in the film, it becomes one of those problematic films that doesn't take enough of a stance to really be able to do much. It just allows whoever is watching it to feel validated in their worldview so it's not really challenging in that sense.
It’s almost the flip side of the “both sides” coin, where the filmmakers are taking a “no sides” approach because they all have bad elements. Bullock also points out the decision not to take a stance may have been due in part to the style of film they were making.
It's sort of the pop culture version of the three in that Unholy Trinity. But when it comes to folk horror as a whole, I guess it's more just that it definitely paid attention to a lot of the written stories that we’re used to in folk tales. But those tales do tend to have a more clear moral stance, and this one just decided to be like “well if I'm going to ground it in reality let's face it: morality is just gray.”
Given its role at the top of the folk horror pantheon, I wondered if it made any sense to redo it or make a sequel for a modern audience. Bullock is interested to see what some sort of sequel or anthology installment might look like, as long as you have the right voices behind it.
You could even make a sequel now, knowing that it was originally going to be an anthology. Why not? You could totally spin off of this and continue more stories about the claw and how it corrupts people in the modern day. I think just the mere fact that it tries to reflect what sensibilities were going on at the time, you could do kind of what they do with it. You could take it into different time periods and do similar stories to give an idea of how we feel today, with the types of problems that we have today (if they're even remotely different). [The original film] is really well done and I love it for its charm. I love it for the effects, which despite them being a little slapdash here and there, that's exactly why I like them. It feels very folk horror-y, it's all very bones and fur and all that. I think it does a lot with a little, and you wouldn't have to try super hard to do that now. You just have to get the heart and spirit of it, which might be the more difficult thing to do. I think in the right hands I'm all for it.
Of course, my next question is, whose hands are the right hands? When I asked him to suggest someone other than Robert Eggers or Ari Aster (to which he laughed that he probably would not have gone with them anyway) he came up with a few really interesting ideas.
It's gonna have to be, for me, Jordan Graham from Sator. That movie has such an atmosphere for me, I would love to see that applied to this. Or maybe you're gonna go a bit more out there…you know what, f*ck it. Jordan Peele. That's who I'd like to see do something like this.
Regardless of what angle he chose, I think he could also strike the tone that we see in this film, where it has this slight over the top-ness to it but there's also a heart to it that Jordan Peele can direct but that I don't think many other directors could actually achieve, apart from the people he works with. Maybe someone like Nia Decosta could also pull that off, but I think Jordan Peele also has a lot of folk horror elements in the films he’s created already, so I'd like to see him go full broke and just do something as a period piece.