Sunday 2 January 2022


Townsfolk, beware! For both PLOT SPOILERS and discussions of sexual violence reside below

“Doctor, witchcraft is dead and discredited. Are you bent on reviving forgotten horrors?”

It seems we are.

’Blood On Satan’s Claw’ (1971) bombed on release but has come to be seen as a classic of British folk horror, forming an unholy trinity with ’Witchfinder General’ (1968) and ’Wicker Man’ (1973). But, for a moment, let’s compare it to something else, which we’ve already looked at here. ’Suspiria’ (1977) has completely the opposite aesthetic - lavish interiors in rainy nights versus the Spring light and verdant great outdoors. But however much their aesthetic varies they’re equally dominated by their aesthetic.

In fact, both can feel that the ‘plot’ is little more than a succession of images, a washing line over which that aesthetic can be draped. And both can feel like exploitation flicks inexplicably filmed in the style of an art movie, as if in some admin error the script got posted to the wrong director. (Try imagining a more garish film title than this, it isn’t exactly ’The Innocents’ or ’Dead of Night’.) This strange friction creates something rather giddyingly unique, leading to films that can’t be pinned to categorisation any more than they can be reduced to sense.

Dreams can involve an air of unease and foreboding, almost unattached to the images and incidents. Translate that into waking life, and the unease seems… well, uneasier for having no apparent focus, and thereby seeming so all-pervasive. Again, this is true of both films. But possibly truer here, where that air of dread attaches itself to - of all things - bucolic country settings.

But perhaps above all, that exploitation flick basis leads to problematic stuff which can’t just be wished away, industriously snipped out by virtuous censors to spare our sensibilities. That stuff’s built in, we’re kind of stuck with it.

Which doesn’t mean that the bad stuff isn’t bad. Dodgiest Depiction of Rape in Seventies Cinema is a much-coveted cup, but the infamous scene here is in the running with ’Straw Dogs’ and ’Clockwork Orange’. As this company might suggest the problem isn’t that its a rape scene, but how it’s a rape scene. Like all genuinely troubling things it seems unaware how troubling it is, rather it thinks it’s being racy and enticing.

Even if ‘fridging’ wasn’t a formal term yet, the interest is clearly not in the victim but the perpetrators. Officially, we may be supposed to disprove of them so getting off on it. But that hardly fits with the scene being so exultantly extended. It’s known that, originally unscripted, it was essentially improvised. And it feels like the crew were as carried away, as indulgent of their worst impulses, as much as the coven within the story. (Director Piers Haggard has subsequently conceded the scene goes too far.)

Then there’s the context, where it’s stuck in the same film as two voyeuristic nude scenes. (Even if, small mercies, there’s no explicit nudity in the scene itself.) Plus the bizarre combination of it and the scene of a man being falsely accused of rape, and immediately presumed guilty, like something out of Men’s Rights Advocate propaganda.

But as always with this taboo-busting stuff, the telling thing isn’t what’s told but what remains unthinkable. It less breaks new territory than shows up where the limits are. While women are raped and murdered to please the Devil, men are just murdered, and notably less lingeringly. Yes, he’s the Prince of Evil but that doesn’t mean he’s… you know… funny or anything.

Just like this troubling scene, the film both gains and loses from its eccentric narrative, so full of leaps and gaps its effectively comprised of them. This is partially because it was originally planed as a portmanteau of three short stories, with the decision to fold them in together made late. In Horrified Magazine, David Evans-Powell sums this up well:

“There is something of the country tale about the slightly meandering structure, the hint of a folktale told rather than history written… The looser plotting and structure also complement the sense of unease and foreboding…. while the focus of action shifts abruptly, hinting at a threat that is genuinely unknowable.”

Imposing order on it feels like something the Judge would do, an act of violence in its own right. (More of which anon.) But we need to cobble together some sort of narrative to fix on, or the film will simply slip through our fingers. Of the three tales, it’s the thing-in-the-attic tale which most shows up its original anthology origins and is effectively encapsulated - over and done with while the main plotline is still getting going. You could imagine it edited out reasonably easily, so let’s disregard it here. Which leaves us with…

Ralph, a stout-hearted farming lad stumbles upon some remains while ploughing. He’s alarmed to find they look non-human, he describes them as of “a fiend”. The skull is bare bones, but somehow still with an intact eyeball. Which, in a grisly affectation, has a worm crawling over it. (An image which I don’t think will ever leave my head.)

But when he shows them to the Judge, as is the way of these things, they’re gone. Except this isn’t some supernatural disappearing act. Other youths of the village have found them, and study their treasure when they should be paying attention in Bible class. (The bits of bone they have don’t seem to resemble anything Ralph found. But we’ll need to get used to that sort of thing.)

They then become rapturously possessed by dem bones, starting a cult under the charismatic and comely leadership of the ironically named Angel. While the ‘fiend’ is shown to have claws, there’s a a moment where Angel lasciviously sniffs the blood on a pointy murder weapon. My fan canon reading of which is that though this it’s her which is the Satan’s claw of the title, his implement, enacting his will.

Linda Hayden perfectly captures the combination of innocent maiden and alluring temptress. It’s unarguable she needs her looks to carry the role, but it’s her performance which sells it. There’s no point you question why she’d have followers. (She’s so good I looked up what other film she’s been in. Mostly it was ’Confessions Of a Window Cleaner’ and its sequels. Guess that was the Seventies…)

It’s suggested at points that this contagion is physical, like a werewolf’s scratch, and at others that it’s social and based around her anti-preacher charisma. She attempts to seduce the Reverend, and when he doesn’t succumb then has him arrested by claiming he molested her, both plans to disable the rival flock-gatherer.

Initiates soon become victim or perpetrator, in seemingly random order. Rape and murder gives the Devil (let’s assume it is the Devil) the power to re-constitute himself. Again this seems fuzzy. They have to be murdered. But also the victims have grown a patch of hair, referred to as “Satan’s skin”, which has to be flayed off them and (presumably) handed to him as if stitching someone together like a patchwork. “He had the Devil in him”, Angel tauntingly explains, “so we cut it out”. (The film has the sense to keep the Devil figure largely off-screen, implying such stuff while not inviting us to worry about the logistics.)

Like ’Suspiria’ the young people seem to be of some indeterminate, ever-shifting age, attending class, playing child games, yet old enough for betrothal. There’s not much point wondering what Linda Hayden’s full-frontal nude scene is all about, it’s about the ticket-buying public getting to see Linda Hayden nude. But it also shows us just how close this “Satan’s skin” is to female pubic hair. Its arrival is associated with bodily pains, like PMT.

Evil and puberty are essentially conflated, Angel sensualising and sexualising her subjects. Disciple Betty has her Devil’s skin cut from her in an attempt to make her goodly and innocent again, but it’s like shaving an adolescent’s nether regions hoping the child will come back. And this parable gains extra resonance in these fecund rural surroundings.

Angel’s antagonist is the Judge, who formally occupies the same role as Van Helsing in Dracula, bringing learning and authority to the problem. He first accepts the Devil’s existence not from the evidence of his own eyes but the authoritative pages of a book. But there’s little attempt to portray him sympathetically, in fact there’s every attempt to treat him as stern, authoritarian and indifferent to the suffering of others. We first see him denying the newly betrothed the chance to get together. And his followers can seem as bad as Angel’s, willing to drown an innocent woman in their search for a witch.

And he says this:

“You must have patience, even while people die. Only thus can the whole evil be destroyed. You must let it grow."

…after which he pops off to London for a while. As they say in film criticism, “you wot mate?” True he rustles up a pious posse while there, but that would hardly take long for a toff with the money to pay them. The standard interpretation of this seems to be: “I am heading off-stage now, the better to effect a dramatic entrance a bit later.” Which seems hard to argue with. But let’s try and engage with it a little.

Partly, it suggests the Devil has to take on some semblance of form to make himself a target to be aimed at. But perhaps the Judge goes to London for the same reason Angel takes to the fields, because that’s his place - the centre of his psychic energy. (His temporary residence in rural life is contrasted to the local Squire.)

Since industrialisation popular culture has tended to see the City as Babylonian, the centre of sin, while small towns and the country are the repository of good homespun values. If Haggard takes precisely the opposite tack, he’s said

“I grew up on a farm and it's natural for me to use the countryside as symbols or as imagery. As this was a story about people subject to superstitions about living in the woods, the dark poetry of that appealed to me.”

He’s also spoken of “the sense of the soil”, of how the film crew were forever digging pits to place the camera as low as possible. As if the Devil wasn’t just found in the raw earth, but generated by it, his buried remains simultaneously a seed. As Sparks in Electrical Jelly say: “It lends the impression that the surface of the world is provisional, a thin skin with deep, accreted layers, both geological and temporal, lying beneath. Forces long-buried and all-but forgotten spirits may worm their way to the surface and re-emerge.” Evil isn’t the losing force in some climatic conflagration but cyclical, like the soil which begat it, so can never be finally defeated.

Instead the characters your sympathies you go to are the villagers, like civilian casualties caught in a Manichean war, who inevitably end up shot by both sides. Ralph becomes our protagonist by default, even if he fails about every test of a hero - precisely none of his actions are successful. But perhaps the clearest example is Betty, unwillingly shorn of her devil’s skin, who ends up with a home in neither camp.

Which makes a good point. It’s often said that this film couldn’t have been made at any other time than the post-Manson-killings era, after Sixties optimism soured. But what about us, now? We hardly need be told over again that hippie thinking was over-romanticised. And if we limit ourselves to this as an explanation, as if it ‘solves’ the film… then, well, we’re limiting ourselves, aren’t we?

The provincial rural location in a pre-industrial time, the endless references to the earth, at the same time specify a time period and create a sense of timelessness. Perhaps it was always like this, life as a perpetual clash between id and ego, with regular folk such as you and I trapped betwixt and between.

This was not just a folk horror film, but the one whose release gave the name to the genre. And isn’t this the essence of folk horror? That the past, folk customs and nature (inasmuch as they’re separable things) are both incomprehensible and inescapable? It’s not Gothic castles in distant lands where the darkness lies, it’s the woods and fields which surround our semis.

Perhaps that’s why the ending feels so inconclusive, for wars without end don’t lend themselves to ending. Which of course raises the question “how would you have done it then, smart arse?” There are various answers, all of which fall under the heading ‘openly’. How about this? We see the melee between coven and pious heavies, which seems to be raging fiercely but inconclusively. Then the camera slowly starts to pan away, across open country, the battle cries subsiding, and finally focuses on a bird catching a worm. The eternal struggle.

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