The Blood on Satan's Claw
Following on the heels of Michael Reeves's Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm) in 1968, The Blood on Satan's Claw (1970) is a lesser known tale of rural violence similarly set in the 17th century when witch hunts and the persecution of people accused of devil worship was at its height in England and Scotland. Initially envisioned by the producers as an anthology horror film in the manner of such Amicus productions as Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), the separate story threads, through the insistence of the director Piers Haggard, were stitched together by screenwriter Robert Wynne-Simmons to form a single narrative about a village under siege from something unspeakable. Unlike Reeves's Witchfinder General, which was dominated by Vincent Price's frighteningly intense performance as the infamous Matthew Hopkins, The Blood on Satan's Claw was more ambiguous and disturbing in its approach to depictions of good and evil. For example, there is no conventional hero in Satan's Claw (the original release title in England) and The Judge, with his rigid beliefs and dour manner, becomes the villagers' savior by default. There is no other authority figure present that has the power or support to restore a rational sense of order to the village. The Judge's approach to controlling the situation, however, is not dissimilar to a tyrant's organized plan for ethnic cleansing.
In an interview with David Taylor for Shock: The Essential Guide to Exploitation Cinema, scenarist Wynne-Simmons revealed "The central theme of the whole film was the stamping out of the old religions. Not by Christianity, but by an atheistic belief that all sorts of things must be blocked out of the mind. So the Judge represents a dogged enlightenment, if you like, who is saying 'Don't let these things lurk in dark corners. Bring it out into the open and then get rid of it. When it becomes a fully fledged cult, it will show itself."
Due to the critical and commercial success of Reeves's Witchfinder General, the Tigon Studio executives who produced The Blood on Satan's Claw pressured the screenwriter and director to replicate some of the same elements for their film such as changing the setting from its original Victorian era to the time of Matthew Hopkins. "There were certain other things which had to be added," Wynne-Simmons recalled. "One was the Book of Witches, which I thought was quite dreadful...For heaven's sake, everyone's heard of witches! They don't really need to look them up in a book! The other addition was the witch-ducking scene. This had to be included because it had been so successful in Witchfinder General, so they wanted to repeat it. I didn't mind that so much, as it did show the incredible stupidity of people at the time."
It is the original touches added by Wynne-Simmons and Piers Haggard, however, that give The Blood on Satan's Claw a resonance other period thrillers rarely achieve. These include contemporary parallels between Angel Blake's coven and the Manson Family as well as similarities to the notorious Mary Bell murder case which scandalized England in 1968. Haggard's determination to shoot the majority of the film on location in a valley in the Chiltern Hills, a chalk escarpment in Southeast England, grounds the film in a believable bucolic setting where the lyrical, pastoral mood often gives way to a darker and more horrific tone. Strong performances, particularly by Linda Hayden as the seductive Angel Blake and Patrick Wymark as the Judge, an atmospheric score by Marc Wilkinson and impressive cinematography by Dick Bush (who went on to lens several films for Ken Russell including Savage Messiah , Mahler , Tommy  and Crimes of Passion ) place The Blood on Satan's Claw in the top tier of great British horror films.
The film provoked some minor controversy when it was first released due to its graphic violence, particularly the scene where an offending patch of "Satan's skin" is surgically removed from the thigh of a squirming cult member (Michele Dotrice). And in the United States, where the movie was unceremoniously dumped on the grindhouse and drive-in circuits with The Beast in the Cellar as the second feature, scenes featuring nudity such as Linda Hayden's attempted seduction of a priest were darkened to avoid an X rating. Like most horror films of the early seventies, The Blood on Satan's Claw received little attention from the major critics and passed unnoticed except for genre enthusiasts who championed the film and are responsible for its large and still-growing cult following today.
Producer: Peter L. Andrews, Malcolm B. Heyworth, Tony Tenser
Director: Piers Haggard
Screenplay: Piers Haggard, Robert Wynne-Simmons
Cinematography: Dick Bush
Film Editing: Richard Best
Art Direction: Arnold Chapkis
Music: Marc Wilkinson
Cast: Patrick Wymark (The Judge), Linda Hayden (Angel Blake), Barry Andrews (Ralph Gower), Michele Dotrice (Margaret), Wendy Padbury (Cathy Vespers), Anthony Ainley (Reverend Fallowfield).
by Jeff Stafford