The Cult Class Collection

The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971)

Starring: Patrick Wymark, Linda Hayden, Barry Andrews, Michele Dotrice, Wendy Padbury, Anthony Ainley

Directed by: Piers Haggard

Rating: 1 2 3 and a half

Barry Andrews as Ralph and Patrick Wymark as the Judge in The Blood on Satan's Claw

The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan's Claw: the great triumvirate of British rural gothic horror films, steeped in history, folklore and beliefs long-buried in our island nation's psyche.

Set in the early 18th century, a few years after Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan's Claw reflects a time of political unrest and religious division, when, despite the protestations of the urbane, well-educated Judge (Patrick Wymark) that 'Witchcraft is dead and discredited', many still believed wholeheartedly in the existence of the Devil and all his works. For as the local doctor points out to the Judge, 'You come from the city; you cannot know the ways of the country.'

He's about to get to know them, however – and it's a crash course in bucolic barminess...

Satan's remains, unearthed in a field

At first, everything seems a bit Carry On in the Country 'hey nonny m'lord how dost thou do', as the young master returns home to visit his aunt, bringing with him his new bride-to-be. But when something scares her during the night, she's thrown into an odd trance and – with a brutality and coldness that smacks either of incredibly intolerance of mental illness or as a hangover from the swift action needed during an outbreak of plague – is carted off to the Bedlam. But is that really a gnarly yellow claw protruding from her sleeve? And could it have something to do with the strange, unearthly remains turned up in a nearby field by ploughman Ralph (Barry Andrews), only to mysteriously disappear?

Linda Hayden as Angel and Wendy Padbury as Cathy in The Blood on Satan's Claw

Yup, he's dug up the Devil. But, like Voldemort, Satan is weak and needs to regain his strength. And while The Blood on Satan's Claw may predate The Exorcist, already the Devil seems to know that children provide the perfect vessels for evil. Under his seeping, malevolent influence, and with nubile, blue-eyed, blonde-haired beauty Angel Blake (Linda Hayden) as their ringleader, the village youths quickly descend into a discomfortingly sexualised, malicious cult of brain-washed, ritualistic murderers, their depredations culminating in a harrowing rape, in which the poor victim, played by Wendy Padbury, looks so young and so genuinely terrified I actually had to look away. Yet the grown ups, catching wind of the situation, turn out to be almost as bad, marshalling themselves into a ruthless, witch-hunting mob to hunt down the children like dogs, wielding torches and pitchforks in approved Hammer style.

Like The Crucible, The Blood on Satan's Claw provides a microcosm of a world in the grip of mass hysteria, in which witches and devilry lurk round every corner. But while Arthur Miller's play – along with Witchfinder General – suggest that accusations of witchcraft are bogus, fuelled by malice, greed, group neurosis or shameless attention-seeking, here the Devil is all too real – and all too disappointingly low budget and rubbish too, when we get to see him. Which is a shame, because otherwise this is a really quite chilling tale of man's inhumanity to man – and children's shocking cruelty to each other too.

Throw in an eerie folky soundtrack that haunts you afterwards like a ghostly fugue, a kindly, curly-haired hero (Ralph) to root for and the kind of unnerving, May Day-style rituals that make The Wicker Man so disturbing and all in all you have a film that seems far ahead of its time – particularly when compared to the Technicolor blood and boobs being churned out by Hammer in that period.

Yes, you will occasionally snigger – if not at the furry, cellar dweller devil than at the bad '70s-does-1700s hair and stilted dialogue – but you'll also come away from this film feeling oddly unsettled. You have been warned...

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