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dog days

dog days

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Blood on Satan's Claw

The Blood on Satan’s Claw
1971
Piers Haggard

Some films forgo an explicit narrative and instead rely on a series of loosely constructed moments that bleed into each other to create a drifting dream-like sensation. Much of the Euro-Horror of the 60’s through the 80’s worked in this fashion (the works of Dario Argento and Jean Rollin being among the more well known in the U.S.). It’s rarer to see this approach in British and U.S. film-making, so it is quite a surprise when I come upon a (in this case British) film that relies much more heavily on atmosphere than it does story or performance to bring its horror across to the audience.

In 1600’s rural England, a farmer (Barry Andrews) uncovers a bizarre skull in in his field (it has patches of fur and an eyeball). He hurries to get the local judge (Patrick Wymark) but when they return, the skull is gone. Soon afterwards a few of the village children begin acting strange and secretive. Under the leadership of Angel  (Linda Hayden), they begin to draw more children into worshiping their new found god and all who resist meet awful fates. The judge slowly begins to piece together what is happening, but it’s a race to get to the children before they raise something monstrous, deep in the woods.

From the opening frame, ‘The Blood on Satan’s Claw’ is filled with lush imagery of the countryside. Nature is presented as abundant and overflowing with life, and at the same time thick with menace. The attention to detail is superb, from the architecture of the houses, to the costuming. It all feels authentic and lived in. Children are also a key element of the film and they are presented as a part of nature, wild, erratic, and potentially antithetical to the ‘civilized’ men of the village.

Angel is a haunting presence (aside from the poor choice to give her scary monster eyebrows in a few scenes), her ethereal villainy plays off well against the directness and assuredness of the Judge. Satanism is shown like a viral infection, slowly spreading through the children and bringing an overhanging sensation of doom to a movie that starts out already drenched in it.

There is a small amount of gore used to great effect and a fair amount of nudity used to shock rather than tantalize. The final confrontation of the judge and the Satan inclined children is the only real let-down of the whole film, thanks to some confusing editing and a very disappointing monster costume. It feels rushed and a little bit tacked on, I felt certain it was heading to a much darker and more ambiguous ending. Perhaps that was the point, the sudden intrusion of reason and hard edged steel into a world filled with uncertainty, dream, and blood. 

A very good film that taps into anxieties about children and nature, it would make an excellent double feature with the original 'Wicker Man' (1973) for an evening of rural horror and strange dreams.

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