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Blood On Satan's Claw (1970)

The Tigon company's Blood On Satan's Claw (or Satan’s Skin as it was known in the US – a far more apt title, as it turns out) is often described as a sequel of sorts to their Witchfinder General, but by eschewing the historical realism of Witchfinder and actually involving black magic, monsters and genuine witches, it's a different kind of film - more akin to the Vincent Price vehicle Cry Of The Banshee, in fact.

Luckily, it’s a much better film than Banshee, which is a pretty average affair – an old fashioned horror film compared with the boundary-pushing nastiness of Witchfinder or Satan’s Claw. And Satan’s Claw is a nasty film. A very, very nasty film, with rape, child abduction, limb-lopping, DIY surgery, insanity and murder piled higher and higher until it’s hard for the viewer to take much more. Which, let’s face it, is pretty much everything a horror film should be.

From a comedy perspective, Satan's Claw is also full of young adults touching their forelocks and putting on bad South Western comedy accents - and it's a matter of taste as to whether you like that. I always think it’s hilarious (“ooh, thankee sor” etc). There's a lot of female nudity on show (including former Doctor Who assistant Wendy Padbury getting 'em out, a not-so-little-known fact which has probably added somewhat to the film’s reputation, particularly amongst the long-scarf-wearing single male contingent).

Satan’s Claw, like its predecessor, is also a film which is deeply in love with the English countryside. Every scene is soaked in the lush greens and browns of a damp British summer, giving it a sense of time and place which (bad wigs and comedy accents aside) helps suspend disbelief and sucks the viewer in – it’s almost like the Tigon crew travelled back in time to film it. It is this quality that amplifies the horror, making you believe that what is happening on the screen actually happened.

Yokel Ralph (contravening several health and safety regulations by operating a plough wearing a bad wig) has ploughed up a worm eaten skull with a single eye glowering balefully from its socket. Panicking somewhat, he runs off to see the local judge (Patrick Wymark) and drags the protesting magistrate back to the field to show him his find, but when they get there, the "face of a fiend" has vanished.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the village, “Mar-ster Peter” has arrived home with his bride-to-be. She is given the attic room of Peter’s parent’s house for the night, but in the dark she is attacked by something, the experience driving her insane (and changing one hand into a hairy claw in the process). After the men from the bedlam have taken her off, Peter is told: "Console yourself... she wouldn't have made a good wife..."

This event, tied in with the scary skull discovery, seems to act as a catalyst for much weird goings-on in the village, as the “children” (all played by young adult actors) start playing games with very grown-up consequences.

In a moment of Sherlock Holmes-like deductive reasoning (or, as it is also known, misplaced courage), Peter decides to get to the bottom of what drove his wife mad and vows to spend the night in the attic bedroom. Now, we all know that's probably not a good idea, but the berk still manages to fall asleep. He wakes to find he is being attacked by a hairy claw, but when he retaliates he ends up chopping his own hand off. Oops.

After this latest incident, the judge leaves for London, mumbling something about "letting the evil grow" (cheers) and attendance continues to drop at Sunday School as the children, led by Angel Blake (saucepot Linda Hayden), continue their games. The local quack reckons witchcraft is afoot (he's not wrong), but unlike Witchfinder, everyone doesn't start burning people at the mere mention of the word, and things are allowed to continue.

As the childrens' games get more violent and blind man's buff ends in the murder of a lad called Mark, Angel goes to see the vicar (Anthony “evil laugh” Ainley) and de-frocks in front of him (call me an old cynic, but this scene could be the other reason for the film's popularity). The priest shows remarkable resolve in the face of such nymphetism, and his reward? He gets accused of the rape of Angel and the murder of Mark.

Unfortunately, this is the one plot strand of the film that lets it down – it is a terrifying scenario which has a last-minute reprieve for the unjustly accused vicar (something which would never have happened in Witchfinder – he would have been dangling from the end of a rope quicker than you could say “but he’s the only one who knows what’s going on!”). Perhaps the makers thought that there was quite enough atrocity and bleakness going on, thank you very much – after all, the seduction scene comes straight after a gruelling murder as Angel (now sporting Satan's eyebrows) gets busy with the gardening shears after a grinning loon has his wicked way with the murdered Mark's sister Kathy (Padbury), watched by the rest of the kids (many of whom now missing sundry body parts).

It appears that the monster whose skull was found in the field is named “Behemoth” – the children are worshipping him as he slowly builds a new body out of the body parts of others. The limbs the children must hack off are marked with growths of thick, wiry hair.

The judge, at Mar-ster Peter's behest, is on his way back from London now: "I am ready to return," he growls, "but understand, I shall use undreamt-of measures."

Once back in the village the judge uses Margaret (a very young Michelle "Ooh Betty" Dotrice) as bait to track down Angel, and Ralph (the plough driver from the beginning of the film) realises he's the proud owner of Behemoth's missing leg (either that or he’s in need of a good waxing). As the judge puts his “undreamt-of measures” into practice, the film rushes towards a nasty and open-ended finale.

There's something deeply worrying about the whole story, as children are forced to mutilate themselves to provide skin for their "master" Behemoth and think nothing of including murder and rape in their previously harmless games. Behemoth stays in the shadows for most of the film, which is probably no bad thing (with the best will in the world, a one-legged monster is not a particularly scary one), and allows the ironically monikered Angel to do all of his dirty work for him. (“Give me my skinnnn…”)

There’s a school of thought which believes that less is more (with the climax of 1957’s Night Of The Demon being a prime example of “more is less”), and when watching Satan’s Claw, the viewer is left wondering how much more terrifying it would have been if the monster was never seen, and it was left ambiguous as to whether there were supernatural events afoot (or a-leg), or if it was just some form of mass psychosis on the part of the children, being led by a homicidal girl called Angel. Imagine what kind of an ending it would have been if the judge, egged on by the torch wielding villages, had thrust his sword through a protesting Angel and tossed her into the fire, only for his eye to be framed by a gap in the flames, now quite clearly insane himself...

Updated: February 27, 2010

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