Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Blood On Satan's Claw (aka Satan’s Skin)

Here Comes Satan Claws!

The Blood On Satan's Claw (aka Satan’s Skin)
1971 UK
Directed by Piers Haggard
Anchor Bay Region 0

Warning: Spoilers gathering in the woods for you.

Directed by Piers Haggard, who genre fans might recognise as being the man who directed Nigel Kneale’s incredibly scary, fourth Quatermass serial... um... Quatermass (also known as The Quatermass Conclusion in its mutated movie version)... The Blood On Satan’s Claw is not the film I was expecting it to be. I steered clear of this one for years because I’d always assumed, just like the DVD cover states, that it’s a kind of companion piece to Witchfinder General which, frankly, is not the kind of film I have any liking for. However, I’d recently been given the impression by either something I’d read or something I’d seen that it was a proper monster movie with loads of naked women dancing around a big, rubber, tentacle, 50s B-movie style creature... and I was all for that.

Sadly, this is also a far cry to what the actual content of the movie turned out to be.

The film starts off in its country village location with the main protagonist, Ralph, catching site of a misshapen skull in a field. Obviously, when the judge he works the land for comes out to look, there’s no skull in sight. Then the rumours about a resurgence in witchcraft start up and at this point the film did look like it might start going into Salem witch trial territory but, thankfully, it’s demonology at work here and, not only that, but a real live demon taking over the minds of the majority of the youth of the village and turning them against their fellow villagers.

Things get off to a flying start with the appearance of a “thing” in the attic of the Judges house. After Peter, played by Simon Williams, brings home his new bride to be, she sleeps in the attic but is soon driven insane by the thing, which nobody knows is lurking under the floorboards in the attic. Peter stays there the next night and is startled to find the devils claw clutching at him through the loose floorboard. It’s here that we get the impression that he’s not all that bright, however. After wrestling with the claw a bit he forces it back under the floorboard and then holds it down with a heavy box. Then he goes back to bed. By the box. In the attic. Because, yeah, obviously. If you found out you were staying in a room with a devil beast under the floorboards... you’d stick around too, wouldn’t you? Have these people been eating too many mushrooms?

Anyway, good old Peter is woken by a hairy, devil hand clutching at his throat so he hacks it off with a knife, only to find that it was his own hand he’s hacked off, bizarrely transformed into something similar to what had grabbed him earlier. After a couple more occurrences of weird stuff, the judge goes off to London to study up on battling demons and, in his absence, the village is struck with murders, nudity, people bearing the hairy mark of the devil and general mayhem as the demon takes the minds of the best and brightest in the surrounding area.

Well, I say best and brightest. To be fair, everyone in this film seems to have been dropped on their head shortly after birth because, it has to be said, there isn’t a lick of common sense among them. If I hadn’t already seen one of the actresses in a much smarter role than the one she’s in here, I wouldn’t have realised just how good an acting job everyone is obviously doing in this movie to get the “simple” life of the villagers up there on screen. They’re actually quite brilliant at it.

Said actress is former companion to Patrick Troughton’s incarnation in Doctor Who, Wendy Padbury. She used to play Zoe opposite The Doctor and Jamie and I have to say, she’s always been one of my favourite companions in the show.

The links with the great British TV institution don't stop there, however. There are two other Doctor Who performers in this one too. The other primary one being the character of Reverend Fallowfield, played by Anthony Ainley who also played one of the incarnations of The Doctor’s arch nemesis The Master at the end of Tom Baker’s time in the role, and right through the show opposite Peter Davidson, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy too, if memory serves me correctly.

The third Doctor Who connection is that of an uncredited Roberta Tovey as one of the group of people who I can only refer to as “the Devil’s villagers”. I missed noticing her, I have to say, but I am reliably informed that she has an uncredited performance in the movie. She, of course, played the much younger incarnation of Susan, The Doctor’s grand-daughter, in the two cinema adaptations of the TV show starring Peter Cushing as The Doctor (or in the movies’ case, as Doctor Who) in the sixties.

But enough of that. Regardless of a load of characters who are a bit less than quick-witted in their actions and a script which is kinda okayish but really goes off into disappointing territory at the end, I have to say that this movie has a lot on offer. The cinematography is astonishing, it has to be said, and for a moment there I was expecting to find it had been shot by Sidney J. Furie (who directed The IPCRESS File) because of the amount of unusual Dutch angles and interesting shot set ups throughout its length. Great things like shots being recorded entirely from low down on the ground in some places and other ones where people are split within the frame in small slats with the camera pointing through bannisters and such like. It’s all rather good and I have to say this aspect kept me entertained. It’s not a scary movie, and I can imagine this being a possible, future “comfort horror” to put on for when you want to chill out with something interesting on in the background (yeah, I know that’s not the best way to watch a movie but some films can just make you relax).

The other thing which did keep me most entertained was Marc Wilkinson’s absolutely brilliant and quite striking score, which features the Ondes Martenot and the Cimbalom (one of my all time favourite musical instruments - thanks John Barry!). This is a great stand alone listen, as well as a good support for the movie and score afficionados will want to take notice of this one.

The Anchor Bay packaged version is a bit of a strange beast. The cover artwork proclaims the movie to be Blood On Satan’s Claw (which it apparently is called on some prints) but the print included in here is definitely THE Blood On Satan’s Claw. The opening credits on the actual print also manages to misspell the great James Hayter’s name as James Hoyter, for some reason, although they seem to be able to get it right in the end credits somehow. Oh well... what’s in a name?

My one big criticism of this film would be the weak ending although I understand it was never the intention of the writer to conclude it like this. The Judge rushing in to fight the devil with a big cruciform sword in slow motion is more than a little anti-climactic, to tell the truth, after the rest of the movie has built the atmosphere so well, but I’m more than willing to forgive it this element because I enjoyed the film so much. It won’t be everyone’s pint of devil’s brew, that’s for sure, but those of you for a taste of late sixties/early seventies British horror movies should feel right at home putting your feet up in a pair of slippers and watching this one with a nice cuppa tea in your hand. Definitely recommended for people who like Hammer, Amicus, Tigon and studios of their ilk.

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