The Blood on Satan’s Claw, new to Auteur’s Devil’s Advocates series, explores Piers Haggard’s undervalued 1971 film in the wider context of the folk horror sub-genre. In this blog post, author David Evans-Powell reflects on the film’s “heathen heritage” on the 50th anniversary of its release.
Folk horror has, in a fairly short space of time, become ubiquitous. It is likely few of us would ever have heard this term in use earlier than a decade ago. Yet it is now freely used to describe a certain type of film, television, literature, art, music and design: the creative expression of our relationship with our dark heritage.
While not originating the term, this explosion in the popularity and visibility of folk horror can in significant part be attributed to A History of Horror, a BBC miniseries shown on BBC4 in 2010, written and presented by Mark Gatiss. Towards the end of the second episode (‘Home Counties Horror’), and after discussing the British horror cinema boom led by the likes of Hammer and Amicus, he draws attention to a brief tradition that flared into life toward the end of the cycle:
“From the late sixties, a new generation of British directors avoided the Gothic cliches by stepping even further away from the modern world. Amongst these are a loose collection of films which we might call folk horror. They shared a common obsession with the British landscape, its folklore and superstitions.” (Gatiss, 2010)
Gatiss then considers two such films, both works that have been celebrated and received significant critical appreciation: Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968) and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). However, Gatiss also brings into this discussion a third, and far less celebrated, film:
“The Wicker Man may have become the cult film, and Witchfinder General may have grabbed most of the critical plaudits, but there’s another film that I think deserves much wider appreciation … The film is Blood on Satan’s Claw.” (Gatiss, 2010; emphasis in original)
Gatiss’ grouping together of these three films has proved enormously influential. The three are often referred to by commentators and fans as the ‘unholy trinity’ and they continue to be critical to how the folk horror tradition is understood. However, as Gatiss acknowledges, posterity has not treated each of these films equally. Both Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man have transcended their humble roots as British genre films and are now considered to be totems of British horror cinema. The Blood on Satan’s Claw has lagged behind in terms of appreciation; Adam Scovell has poetically described the film as taking longer to gain its “heathen heritage” (Scovell, 2017: 29).
It would be unfair, though, to think The Blood on Satan’s Claw only has merit by virtue of its association with the other two films. It deserves to stand on an equal platform to the other two and considered for its own abundant merits. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the film’s release and so seems a perfect opportunity to give it some long overdue appreciation.
Arguably, the interest in folk horror would never have taken off if it were not for The Blood on Satan’s Claw. One of the first public uses of the term was made by the trade journal Kine Weekly in a report from the set of the film in 1970. By the time director Piers Haggard was being interviewed for a Fangoria piece in the early noughties, and then again by Gatiss in A History of Horror, he was comfortable describing the film as folk horror. As Howard David Ingham has pointed out, “it’s the only film before about 2008 that was deliberately intended to be a folk horror film” (Ingham, 2018: 26; italics in original). Is it too far to say that without The Blood on Satan’s Claw we would not have seen the creative explosion of folk horror we have witnessed across the past ten years or so? Maybe, but the tradition’s renaissance would certainly have lacked the cultural traction it has enjoyed, and I doubt whether it would have permeated quite so effectively into popular culture.
Originally intended as a portmanteau film (in the style of many an Amicus horror film) and reshaped during production into a single narrative, The Blood on Satan’s Claw can feel uneven and awkward as characters appear and disappear and the focus of the narrative shifts in an episodic fashion. For me though, rather than detracting from the film, it instead lends it a pleasing idiosyncrasy that fits the rural setting. Ingham has made similar reflections, remarking that the imperfections in adjusting the film into a single narrative gives it the feel of “a countryside tale, or a series of them, with the narrative flow of gossip” (Ingham, 2018: 27). It also lends a disquieting sense of unpredictability to the events of the film, given the shifting nature of the plotline and the characters, meaning that – without prior knowledge of the plot – it is genuinely difficult to predict exactly what will happen next.
This is the story of a small rural community in the early 18th century beset by a diabolical force unearthed from the soil that corrupts the village children into committing acts of savagery. It is a film suffused with dread and punctuated by eruptions of violence. It benefits both from one of the best scores of any British horror film, courtesy of composer Marc Wilkinson, and some superb cinematography by the prolific Dick Bush, who invests the countryside with sense of palpable malevolence. The film’s subversion of the rural landscape – as a place of great brutality as well as great beauty – is critical to Piers Haggard’s vision. Reacting against what he perceived as the camp theatricality of Hammer’s horror oeuvre, and faithful to his own rural upbringing, he brings “the power of the darkness of the countryside” to the fore (Haggard, 2019).
The Blood on Satan’s Claw’s central concern – that of a destructive and savage force from our past emerging, not from some far-flung outpost but from the earth of the English countryside – is one that arguably finds resonance with us now. Not malignant but no less marginalised aspects of our heritage – those of women, BAME and LGBT communities – are being given a louder voice and are rising from our past to challenge the preconceptions upon which so many of our notions of accepted history are based. Brexit has seen a re-politicising of the British landscape with invocations of the White Cliffs of Dover and the English village as representative of a form of Britain that has been idealised in collective memory. In a way not dissimilar to the Powell and Pressburger film A Canterbury Tale (1944), The Blood on Satan’s Claw cautions against such nostalgic and sentimental reimagining of the countryside and instead warns that our greatest threats emerge insidiously from within than oppose us from without. And, in an age increasingly mindful of human impact on our environment, the film’s suggestion of landscape in revolt that nurtures and allows such destructive evil to emerge can only feel like a pointed riposte.
Marking the 50th anniversary, this year sees the publication of my book on The Blood on Satan’s Claw, the film’s first dedicated monograph, and a sustained exploration from its production and reception to its themes and place as representative of the anxieties and concerns of early seventies Britain. I hope it adds to Mark Gatiss’ championing of the film back in 2010 and brings it to the wider audience it so richly deserves, and an appreciation to equal those of its more celebrated bedfellows.
For more information on The Blood on Satan’s Claw, visit our website.
Gatiss, Mark, ‘Home Counties Horror’, A History of Horror, BBC, 2010.
Haggard, Piers, ‘Interview with director Piers Haggard’, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, Screenbound Pictures Ltd, 2019.
Ingham, Howard David, We don’t go back: A watcher’s guide to folk horror, Room 207 press, 2018.
Scovell, Adam, Folk Horror: Hours dreadful and things strange, Auteur, 2017.