Monday 26 June 2017

We Don't Go Back #50: Blood on Satan's Claw, a reappraisal

When I first wrote about (The) Blood on Satan's Claw, it's fair to say that I didn't take the film at all seriously. I sort of regret that review.

My previous review of Blood on Satan's Claw is one of the most negative posts on this blog. That's not the problem, though. The problem is that it's basically a dismissal of the film. And the fact is, if you're properly looking at folk horror films, the three films you have to take seriously are The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan's Claw. People I like and respect consider it one of the Towering Classics of the genre; every time someone's talked about how great it was, how fantastic, I started to begin to doubt my judgement.

I began to to wonder if I'd seen the same film as these people.

So, here's the thing. I'm going to launch a Kickstarter for a We Don't Go Back book this week, and that means it's time to return to Blood on Satan's Claw and give it a reappraisal (I'm going to rewatch The Witch as well, since I didn't really give that one enough depth either, first time round). This post retreads some of the ground of the first post, and supersedes it.

Yes, yes, all right. I went back.

(Before I go further, it's content warning time. If discussions of rape and rape culture upset you or bring back things you wish they wouldn't, please don't read on. An essay about an old horror film is not a good reason to experience real distress.)
Looking up at Ralph from the eyeball's perspective is a really interesting choice.
A synopsis: in (The) Blood on Satan's Claw,1 a demonic skull with a single staring eye turns up in a fresh-ploughed furrow; and as a result many of the young people of the region, led by bad seed Angel Blake (Linda Hayden), join a cult dedicated to returning the demon Behemoth to life. They grow patches of skin on their bodies, and cut them off. And build themselves a devil.

The film has a series of faintly delirious and only loosely connected plotlines that weave in and out of the film's main thread. You see how the cult blights the life of the area. A young woman is driven mad by something under the floorboards. A curate is tempted. Teenagers who won't take part in the cult die horribly. Witch hunting hysteria sweeps the land. People grow weird deformities. Eventually a hard-bitten judge brings ruin on the cult, but at a terrible cost.
Look at this shot. it is composed like a woodcut. It's genius. 
The cinematography of Blood on Satan's Claw is so far beyond its genre contemporaries in terms of artistry, it's practically heartbreaking. In any given minute of the film you can see a beautiful, painterly shot, perfectly lit, expertly composed, shot from unexpected angles. Marc Wilkinson's score is in my opinion some of the finest horror music ever written, drawing on the sounds of the countryside, the birdsong, the wind, to create a kind of giddy, queasy tension.

You get the distinct impression that director Piers Haggard is pushing the envelope as far as he can, trying really hard to make something that, in context, is fresh and interesting. It's oddly sombre in tone, especially – oddly – when it's being playful. It's a grim film. It has dirt caked under its nails.

If I stopped there, you could probably get the impression that this really was the Towering Classic of the Genre people so often say it is.
Him at the front, that's Denis Gilmore, Hatchet in Psychomania.
And... Well. What makes a classic, anyway? What causes a film to have an unassailable reputation that makes you look churlish if you go against it?

When you say that you think a film that is loved by a large number of people just isn't very good, you're saying you know better than Everyone Else, and that's a pretty arrogant stand to make, particularly when you're just another ordinary person on the internet.

And it's more churlish if it's me, because to some extent I owe this blog to it! Blood on Satan's Claw is the reason why "folk horror" is even a thing, since it's the only film before about 2008 that was deliberately intended to be a folk horror film. All the other films and TV shows that we call "folk horror" and which predate the late 2000s revival are accidental; we include Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man because Mark Gatiss suggested that these three films, being generally considered good, made at roughly the same time, and having commonalities in tone and theme, formed a sort of troika for a subgenre that you could, arbitrarily, find in British film and TV of the 70s if you chose to look. But everything else that we call "folk horror" apart from these three movies is called that because people like me have, arbitrarily, decided that it's in (or not). You can't have folk horror at all without Blood on Satan's Claw. 
I'd be mad not to recognise how charismatic Linda Hayden is.
So I'm going to frame this a little differently this time, and while I'm going to start talking about the – profound – problems I still have with Blood on Satan's Claw, and more so after rewatching it, I want to leave it up to you to decide whether it's a brilliant film with terrible bits in it, or an awful film with terrific bits in it (because one of the things it most certainly is not is a mediocre film, oh dear me no). I mean, OK, that's what I always do. But I want to make that an explicit thing this time.

Apparently, like many British horror films of the era (particularly the Amicus ones, although this is a Tigon film), Blood on Satan's Claw was originally planned to be an anthology movie, one that had characters who appeared in the different streams of story, minor characters in some parts, major in others. Haggard decided that the film would be better served if this was mixed up a bit, so the separate narratives were interwoven more. But while the narrative strands of the last hour of the film weave together, in and out, and in ways that are potentially pretty interesting (you get this feel like it's a countryside tale, or a series of them, with the narrative flow of gossip), the first part of the film has little to do with the rest of it, and actually makes less sense in the light of the rest of the film than it does on its own. Which isn't a whole lot to begin with.
Again and again, these choices in composition and lighting.
To wit: Master Peter (Simon Williams) brings his sweetheart Rosalind (Tamara Ustinov) home to meet his disapproving aunt Isobel (Avice Landon), who is at the same time being visited by the Judge (Patrick Wymark, also Cromwell in Witchfinder General). Although Isobel disapproves, Rosalind is given the attic room. Something happens in the room that night, and she goes mad. Before Rosalind is dragged off to Bedlam, she slashes Isobel across the face with her hand, deformed now into a vicious claw, and Isobel is taken to her bed, before running (offscreen) screaming across the fields and neither being seen nor spoken of again. Peter, meanwhile, ventures into the attic that night. Hearing something under the attic floorboards, he pulls up the board and sticks his arm into the hole.

You wouldn't even do that if it was rats, let alone when it turns out to be a viciously clawed hand that tries to drag you down further, nor after putting the board back, with a heavy chest on it, would you fall asleep in the same room. But this is what Peter does. He wakes up: the hand is choking him. Of course it is. He hacks at it with his knife; it is his own hand he hacks off.
That hand. That bloody hand.
Why the Devil's hand (and it does seem to be just the hand, or at any rate a spiritual force that can possess Master Peter's hand) is independently under the floorboards of Peter's home rather than in the woodland ruins or growing on people in the community becomes harder to fathom as the film goes on. As an isolated incident, it makes more sense (and that's not a whole lot) than it does in the light of the rest of the film. Aunt Isobel's disappearance is not mentioned, even by Peter or the Judge, for the remainder of the film, and apart from a brief scene where Peter introduces his intended to the maid's daughter, Cathy Vespers (Wendy Padbury), Peter, Rosalind and Isobel have virtually nothing to do with the main action of the film. You could cut out nearly all of the scenes with Peter, Rosalind and Isobel in and the film would not make significantly less sense.

I am generally very opposed to the sorts of horror films where the protagonists know they're in horror films and behave accordingly, but at the same time, Peter is stupid, stupid in a way that beggars belief. He puts his hand under some floorboards which sound like they have really big rats (and this set in a period where the plague was a part of common memory – in dialogue, the Judge indicates that the film is set in the last decade of the 17th century). He is attacked by a supernatural force, but he nonetheless lies down in the same room and goes back to sleep rather than gets out of there. He falls back asleep, even though this is silly, because if he didn't, you couldn't have the bit with the claw choking him.
He's so good, you almost start to think the "let it grow" line makes sense. Almost.
And this is a real problem for the film. It has this need to make set pieces happen, and in order for that to happen, characters say and do things that make no sense other than to advance the plot or to make things happen. We need to have the bit where Peter engages with a struggle with a hairy claw, so he'll go up into the loft. The fight with the hand isn't a consequence of what Peter does, what Peter does is the thing that allows the fight with the claw to happen. And that's a fine but important distinction.

The Judge: But you must have patience. Even while people die, only thus can the whole evil be destroyed: you must let it grow.
For example, the Judge has to leave at the end of the first act of the film (business in London, he says), and comes back in the final part. He is the only person with the authority, knowledge and power to deal with the problem. And that piece of dialogue is supposedly his justification, and oh dear me Patrick Wymark delivers it beautifully, it's a great performance, he sells it right to you. But it is frustratingly silly. You don't let it grow, you nip it in the bud. Of course you do!
Thanks to the Judge shooting off for half the film,
two of these young people wind up dead. Thanks for nothing, Judge.
But if they nipped the evil in the bud, the film would be about half an hour shorter, and you wouldn't be able to have Angel Blake full frontal naked, or have Cathy Vespers raped and murdered in front of masturbating teenagers and leering crones.
Crones, leering.
Yes, I went there.

Because I like a lot of films with daft plots, but the thing that I cannot, cannot get past is how exploitative this film is.

Shortly before the rape/murder, there is a scene where Angel Blake comes to Rev. Fallowfield (Anthony Ainley) at night, and tries to seduce him. She comes to his door at about midnight. He doesn't say, "what are you doing here so late?" or "Go home, you shouldn't be here alone!" No, even as she is stripping off her clothes, he says, "I've been meaning to speak with you, Angel Blake... your behaviour has been most unseemly of late..." and the only reason he would conceivably do that rather than leap forward, wrap a coat around her and shove her out the door is because if he did that, that would stop dead in its tracks a scene where Angel gets her kit off and stands full frontal in the room offering herself.
It was quite hard to get a SFW screenshot of this bit.
And we can't have that happen, so he has to behave in a way that doesn't make sense for his character in particular or what we know about the world in general in order that we, the people watching, get to see Angel Blake full-frontal nude. And Linda Hayden is 17 in this film, and as I mentioned when I wrote about Walkabout, sexualised footage of minors is legally problematic, and there's much less justification for it in Blood on Satan's Claw.
The furtive smile of the rape-crier.
And then, at Mark Vespers' fiuneral, in front of Mark and Cathy's Mother, Angel accuses the Reverend of raping her, and of Mark's murder, and the Squire arrests the curate, no questions asked, even though Mark's murderers have told his mother they did it and Angel has told the curate the same. And Angel smiles as the curate is taken away, and that only makes sense because the film wants to show how Angel is the sort of evil woman who cries rape falsely (because in the moral universe of Blood on Satan's Claw, rape is an accusation bad women throw at innocent men, and they're always believed, regardless of whether they have a bad reputation, and... that's not quite how things pan out in the real world, and I can't imagine that was how things generally happened in the 1690s).
Licking the shears.
Why, when Mark Vespers (Robin Davies) is murdered (mostly) offscreen, does the death of his sister Cathy merit a lengthy ritual murder-rape that leaves nothing to the imagination, that goes on and on for nearly ten solid minutes, complete with shots of people in the cult getting off hard on what they're seeing and Angel Blake licking the murder weapon?

Because titillation and gore, that's why. Because seeing a pretty young woman stripped and violated in this way was considered to be what the fans wanted.
And it's not one shot. It's repeated closeups of Margaret getting her rocks off.
Margaret (Michele Dotrice), in repeated closeup, is among those watching, and there is no doubt what she's doing. Which is all the more problematic when she becomes one of the primary characters in the third act.
Ralph: How do you know she be a witch?
Man from mob: We know... if she don't sink she be one!
Ralph: If she sink you've done her murder!
(The men in the mob open their mouths as if to say something, then think a bit, make "Oh, yeah, I never thought of that" faces and walk off, abashed.)
No.. wait... If you drown... No, hang on. If you float... you're a witch.
Ralph (Barry Andrews), Cathy's sweetheart, who knows that Cathy was murdered by the same people who murdered Mark, and knows Angel Blake was involved, nonetheless rescues Margaret from a mob that is (rightly) convinced she is a witch. Margaret openly says she is a witch, insists she is a witch, in fact, even propositions Ralph with an offer of witchy sex, and even then Ralph refuses to believe she's actually a witch. Even after he's found his sweetheart on a site of ritual murder, even after he's the one that found the skull.

And that's entirely so that the plot can happen. So they can peel Margaret's patch of Satan's Skin from her leg, so she can run away and get caught in a mantrap, and not get rescued by Angel, and so she can then be tied up and threatened and give up the secrets of Angel's coven. In summary, Margaret is violated, and then rescued by someone who shouldn't be rescuing her, because it serves the plot that she is violated some more.

And this is gendered. It is! You can't have this happen to one of the male cult members (like that ginger bloke who's also in Psychomania). No, because we have to see a girl dragged around by men, rescued by men, offer herself to a man, and then get tied up, trapped, helpless and threatened, by men.
Look how great this shot is. You nearly miss that there's a monster in it. That's a feature, not a bug.
And that's really my issue with Blood on Satan's Claw. All I can see is a continual succession of plot developments that only make sense if you accept they're happening so that more important plot developments might come about. And the important plot developments forced in this way are often exploitative and misogynistic, things like "let's see Linda Hayden topless" or "let's have Michele Dotrice doing some self abuse at the rite" or "let's rape and murder Wendy Padbury". And I don't think that's because, as someone on Twitter said to me, recently, "it's of its time", because there are lots of films that are of the time that don't go there.2

And this pains and frustrates me. Because it looks beautiful. And it's got an aesthetic sensibility – hairy hand excepted – that is miles ahead of the vast majority of British genre films from the same era (and that includes Witchfinder General). And its actors sell often nonsensical dialogue with grace and feeling (Patrick Wymark is particularly good; Linda Hayden is great too). And its music is thematically sound, and consistently good, better than perhaps any other 70s horror film (with the possible exception of The Wicker Man, although the music in that film serves a very different purpose).
Hope you brought your pitchforks, lads. You're going to need them.
But I can't see why it's a peerless classic.

I don't hate it. In fact, I fully expect I'll watch it again. I certainly had more fun watching it than I did Witchfinder General, and I think that's because it tries to transcend its genre (and even though in my opinion it fails, trying is better than not trying). In fact, I think that while Witchfinder General has less that's wrong with it than Blood on Satan's Claw, it has less that's brilliant about it, too.

And it was nowhere nearly as miserable an experience as watching Alien: Covenant (but then very little has been). But I just can't see why Blood on Satan's Claw, of all films, became a touchstone for a subgenre that, arbitrarily, includes many much better films and TV plays (Robin Redbreast, Penda's Fen, The Wicker Man, The Devils, and The Stone Tape, just off the top of my head) other than the fact the director gave a name to it.

I would like to see what I'm missing, though. I genuinely would. It's not you, Blood on Satan's Claw. It's me.

Please leave a comment if you love Blood on Satan's Claw. Tell me why you love it.

Sell me on it.

1Look. Here's a classic example here of why I push back hard when people call me an "expert". I didn't know that the original title of this film was Blood on Satan's Claw (no "The"). I just assumed that since the versions I'd seen on TV, DVD and Blu Ray had a "The" at the start of the title, that was what it was originally called, because, you know, you trust the title card. But I found out far, far too late that the opening credits were redone when the film was prepared for a DVD release, and that the title of the film had the addition of the definite article (and the opening credits admitted some typos — James "Hoyter", "Tigron"). I still think of it with the "The" for the simple reason that every version I've ever seen has had it on the title card. Which is yet another case of "It's not you, Blood on Satan's Claw, it's me." (back)

2It has been reported to me that apparently Wendy Padbury was really keen to do the scene, in order to escape post-Doctor Who typecasting (although Tamara Ustinov is quoted as saying Padbury was actually really upset by the scene, so who knows – even if I ever had the chance to interview Wendy Padbury, this isn't a thing I'd ask her about). Even if she loved doing it, this doesn't absolve the scene of being exploitative. Piers Haggard himself, interviewed by Mark Gatiss in 2010, suggested that he'd probably do it differently if he'd had the chance: 
If I look at the rape scene now, I think it's probably too strong. And it's interesting that I wasn't bothered at the time. I think you will find most directors, if they get their teeth into a sequence which they think is going to be really powerful, they become completely seduced. And I was seduced, by the sheer dramatic power.
A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss,
episode 2 (BBC 2010)