The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) Retrospective

In early 18th-century England, Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews) uncovers a deformed skull with one intact eye and strange fur while ploughing. He insists that local judge (Patrick Wymark) look at it, but it has vanished and the judge disregards what he sees as Ralph’s supernatural fears. Meanwhile, Peter Edmonton (Simon Williams) brings his fiancee, Rosalind Barton (Tamara Ustinov), to meet his aunt, Mistress Banham (Avice Landone), with whom the judge is staying. Mistress Banham and the judge disapprove of the match and arrange for Rosalind to sleep in a disused attic room. Rosalind begins screaming during the night and injures Banham when she investigates, causing her to fall mysteriously ill.

Despite Peter’s protests, the judge arranges to have Rosalind committed; as she is led out, Peter sees that she has sprouted a monstrous claw. Meanwhile, three children find a claw, from the deformed body from which the skull presumably came, while playing next to a field. That evening, Mistress Banham disappears. Convinced that the house contains evil, Peter sneaks into the attic room at night and is attacked by a creature with a furred claw. He tries to hack it with a knife but, when the judge bursts in, he finds that Peter has severed his own hand. Though sceptical of supernatural involvement, the judge borrows a book on witchcraft. The next day, the judge departs for London, leaving the pompous and slow-witted Squire Middleton (James Hayter) in charge, but promises to return.

Mark (Robin Davies), one of the three children, is lured out by his classmates, who are playing truant from their scripture classes so they can play ritualistic games in a ruined church under their ringleader, Angel Blake (Linda Hayden). Mark is tricked into playing a lethal game of blind man’s bluff and his body is hidden in his family’s woodshed. Angel Blake attempts to seduce the curate, Reverend Fallowfield (Anthony Ainley). When he resists, she tells him that Mark is dead and ‘had the devil in him, so we cut it out’. At Mark’s funeral, Angel’s father speaks to the squire, accusing the curate of attempting to molest his daughter and of potentially killing Mark.

Mark’s sister, Cathy (Wendy Padbury), is gathering flowers for his grave when two boys attack and bind her under the pretence of a game. Ralph, who has been courting her, hears her scream but cannot find her. The boys lead Cathy to Angel, who marches her in a procession with the other children to the ruined church, where they perform a Black Mass to the demon Behemoth, who appears as a furred beast. The children tear Cathy’s dress to reveal fur on her back. All the children have been growing these patches of fur, which have been flayed from their bodies to restore the demon’s physical form. The cult ritualistically rape and murder Cathy, and flay the fur from her back. Ralph finds her body in the church and carries her to the Squire, who releases Fallowfield but is unable to arrest Angel, who has vanished.

Ralph finds men attempting to drown a girl named Margaret (Michele Dotrice), whom they suspect of witchcraft. He rescues her and finds fur on her leg. He convinces a doctor to remove it, but when Margaret wakes she proves to be a committed servant of the devil and flees. The judge returns and sets dogs to track her. Margaret seeks out Angel, but Angel abandons her when she realizes she no longer has a piece of the demon’s skin.

Margaret is caught and, interrogated by the judge, reveals that the cult will meet at the ruined church to complete the ritual to rebuild the demon’s body. The judge assembles a mob to destroy the cult and demon. Ralph, whose leg has sprouted fur, awakens in the church surrounded by the cult. He nearly flays the fur from his legs in a trance before the mob attack. In the ensuing violence, Angel is killed and the judge kills the demon with a sword, ending the curse on Ralph and returning him to normal.

Robert Wynne-Simmons received a letter from Chilton Films, responding to some story ideas he had sent them. “They were looking for a script for a horror film to be made at Pinewood Studios that spring. I called the phone number and I am not sure if it was Peter Andrews or Malcolm Heyworth (the producers of Chilton Films) I spoke to, but I said that I did indeed have an idea for a horror film, which I’d be happy to send. It was a lie but I did not want the opportunity to pass. I was asked if I could send them an outline by the following Thursday, which only left me five days to come up with something.

“I fell back on Legends of Torment to give me the seed of an idea (a hand which tried to kill its owner in his sleep) and called it The Devil’s Skin. To my surprise, they came back to me saying they liked my story but they really wanted three ideas, not one. Could I supply them with three interlinking stories to form a portmanteau film, such as the ones Amicus produced?”

Wynne-Simmons was not a great fan of compilation movies. He believes the producers had a template like that of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) in mind. “But at that stage, I was quite prepared to do whatever they wanted,” he said. He drew upon his experiences of the horrific ways that children treat each other; he also looked to the headlines (the trial of Mary Bell, an 11-year-old who had recently been convicted of the manslaughter of two little boys) as well as Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, and its historical genesis in the Salem witchcraft Trials (1692) for inspiration. “I just came up with what frightened me…”

He was then called to a meeting with Christopher Neame at Tigon Films. Tigon was owned by Tony Tenser, a legend in low-budget exploitation filmmaking, who had recently produced Witchfinder General (1968). He was also behind The Curse of the Crimson Altar (1970), a B-movie which not even the presence of Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele could save, and The Sorcerers (1967), a much better film by Witchfinder director Michael Reeves, which had also starred Karloff alongside Ian Ogilvy and a young Susan George.

A few years before, Tenser had been responsible (together with his then-producing partner Michael Klinger), for green-lighting Roman Polanski’s terrifying Repulsion (1965), which famously redefined psychological horror.

Robert Wynne-Simmons had never written a professional screenplay. He remembers his first lesson in horror movie structure: “Chris Neame paced around the room with a big grin on his face and told me that in a horror film there should be blood every ten minutes or so, and every twenty minutes a naked girl should walk across the screen. Beyond that, I could do as I liked.”

The outline had been set in the early days of the Victorian railways. Wynne-Simmons had wanted the Judge, who would eventually be played by Patrick Wymark (although the producers originally wish-listed Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee for the role), to return to the village “in a massive steam train, to suggest the inexorable power of progress which would wipe away the remnants of the old religion.” But Heyworth and Andrews asked him to back-date the action a century or two, which “would please Tigon because Witchfinder General was then beginning to be looked upon as a great success.”

These stories were written during a troubled period in Wynne-Simmons’ schooling: “At school I’d written a number of horror stories largely to exorcise my own demons. I went through a very bad time of being teased and so on and there was a lot of nasty baggage that I needed to get rid of. One way I found of getting rid of this was to think of the worst thing I could and write it down and these stories were immensely popular with the other kids. So one of these stories was the basis that started the whole ball rolling.

“The story was about a person who goes to a house – owned by relatives of his who were somehow malevolent. He is forced to sleep in the spare room and found himself being strangled by his own hand. It was very shadowy – much more so than what came to the screen – really more like Repulsion than Witchfinder General. That was the story that started it and developed it into three parts.”

Realizing that the second story would need to be more contemporary, Wynne-Simmons found inspiration in the form of child murderer Mary Bell. In 1968, the eleven year old Bell had been found guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility for the strangling of two children in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

What Wynne-Simmons found most disturbing about the case was Bell’s utter lack of remorse: “She would go up to the mothers of the children she’d murdered and virtually boast of it. She seemed to want to get herself caught and that horrifying idea of childhood innocence being totally evil was also a central theme of the movie,” – and so, on screen – Mary Bell became Angel Blake.

Wynne-Simmons’ third story centered around the battle between a Judge and a paganistic cult. Initially, Wynne-Simmons placed his characters in a later time period than in the final film: “It was actually set during the age of steam, the early Victorian era. The idea was that the demon came from something that was obviously not in the folk memories of the people involved. It had come from somewhere way back and was not attached to any particular religion. There was to have been this image of the judge arriving aboard a steam train, which was meant to be an image of him steamrollering the whole movement.”

Changing the time period would not have any significant impact on what was still entitled The Devil’s Touch. “Right from the beginning, the main theme had always been the conflict between the ‘enlightened’ world and the old religions, such as Wicca,” Wynne-Simmons explained, so the pillars of the story would effectively remain the same.

Shooting already scheduled to begin on April 1. Wynne-Simmons was given three weeks to produce a first draft. Now, a director had to be found and, demonstrating the kismet that makes The Blood on Satan’s Claw so special, the candidate who was chosen made a perfect fit.

Piers Haggard’s first feature film as a director, Wedding Night (1970), which brought him to the attention of Peter Andrews and Malcolm Heyworth. Though Haggard himself was not very happy with the finished product, “they had seen it and asked would I be interested in directing Satan’s Claw?” Recalling the first time that he met Robert Wynne-Simmons, Haggard says, “He was an incredibly shy, pasty, skinny public schoolboy who had obviously been bullied. I always thought it amazing that this retiring figure could dream up such monstrously cruel inventions. When I came on board, Peter and Malcolm had for some insane reason decided they wanted to make the film a three-parter, because they thought it would be cheaper, which is completely false arithmetic.

“Since Robert had already developed his three stories with running characters, I felt very strongly that as the stories were already linked, we should do a bit more work and make them join up. We managed to stitch the parts together just enough by the time filming started, although there were some threads we never quite managed to tie up.” Haggard has an ‘additional material’ credit on the film which he attributes mostly to his work on the structure and “making the ‘antiquey’ rural English dialogue authentic.” He also says he supported the producers’ earlier decision to roll the time period back to an earlier century. “That seemed very obvious. The time of the witchcraft obsession was much more potent.”

By the time Haggard arrived, the producers had already signed 17-year-old Linda Hayden to play devilish beauty Angel Blake. Two years earlier, Hayden had starred in the controversial movie Baby Love (1969), burning up the screen as a sexually-manipulative schoolgirl who employs her precocious sensuality to set a bomb beneath the family that adopts her. It was, in effect, a British take on Lolita but far grittier and more confrontational than its better-known counterpart. Baby Love was Hayden’s first film and she gave an extraordinary tour-de-force performance, instantly establishing herself as the country’s most exciting teenage star. Michael Klinger, who produced the film, had quickly signed her to a multi-picture contract. The producer had shrewdly agreed a worldwide distribution deal for Baby Love with Joseph E. Levine’s company Avco-Embassy and had decided his new star should keep a low profile until the film was released. That was not until several months later than planned, and Hayden found the down-time frustrating. “I had constantly worked until I did Baby Love but they wanted to manage my career in a different way,” she recalled. “I just wanted to work!”

Nevertheless, her remarkable performance, coupled with the heat generated by a brilliant promotional campaign, made Baby Love one of that years most talked-about films and she travelled the world promoting it: “I had my picture eighty foot high in Times Square; my eyeball was about six foot tall. I was being looked after by the film’s director, lovely Alastair Reid, and his wife. Michael Klinger and his wife were also there. It was a bit like being with a family and living the high life.”

Hayden’s travels meant that she did not get back in front of the cameras until October 1969, when she played Alice Hargood in Hammer’s Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970 and filming on Satan’s Claw began on April 14, 1970, following a few days of rehearsal during which slight amendments were made to the script.

“I thoroughly enjoyed doing Satan’s Claw,” Hayden said. ‘I loved Piers Haggard. He was a very inspirational director. And Robert (Wynne-Simmons) would come and stay on the set. He’s not a flamboyant person by any stretch of the imagination; a very reclusive character. I also met some lovely people: Simon Williams, Michele Dotrice – who is a very underrated actress – and Patrick Wymark, who was a charming man. He died soon afterwards, which was extremely sad.”

Wynne-Simmons considers Wymark’s contribution to have been “very powerful,” and the fact that the producers could not afford to cast one of the stars that they originally wanted was “a blessing in disguise.” Haggard described the actor as “the master of poetic menace.” The director also has fond memories of Tony Tenser: “He was like a nice Jewish uncle and to his credit, he wasn’t concerned about turning out a Hammer replica. Although there are plenty of scary, gory sequences in the script that are eternally to Robert’s credit, which many directors could have shot more effectively than me, I was determined to make it a film, not a horror film.”

A decision to avoid comparison with Hammer also affected the casting, as Heyworth recalls: “Tony Tenser was a very commercial entrepreneur, and he wanted something that was going to do well in the cinema and be very commercial, but at the same time was distinctively different from everything else going around in the horror genre. He said we should ask Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, and we said, ‘No way’-because that would immediately stamp it as a ‘Hammer horror’ film and we didn’t want that. At the time, everybody was into the Hammer type of thing with lots of blood and gore and sex and absolutely no content—all the scripts were a version of the same story. We were determined to do something different.”

“The part of the Judge, I suppose, was designed with Vincent Price or Cushing or Lee in mind, though we didn’t know which,” admits Wynne-Simmons. “But then of course, Tigon was trying to make it on a very, very tiny budget and really couldn’t reach any of the actors in terms of what they demanded as a fee. So Patrick Wymark, then joined. And in a way that was a good move, because it makes it different. It’s a fresh slant on the male lead for these things.”

Wymark had been seen briefly as Oliver Cromwell in Witchfinder General and had also appeared in The Skull (1965) and Children of the Damned (1964), but was best known for starring in the drama series The Plane Makers and its sequel The Power Game. He died of a heart attack, aged only 44, shortly before Satan’s Claw was released.

“He was delightful, very nice,” remembers actress Ustinov (Sir Peter’s daughter). “I didn’t get to know him well, but he couldn’t have been nicer or more relaxed or easier to work with. And a wonderful actor. I liked him very much-we all did.”

“I’ve no reason to say this, but in the back of my head I always thought Patrick Wymark was pissed (drunk],” confides costar Davies. “I remember putting him into a coach—and the sweat!” Heyworth confirms, “It was his last film because he had a problem with drink, but he was great, a wonderful actor.”

Many of the young cast were already friends from their time at the Ada Foster stage school, and those still young enough to count as “child actors” were mostly managed by the Barbara Speake Agency (one of the chaperones provided by the agency was June Collins, mother of established child-actor-turned-rock star Phil). Davies was fresh from the popular children’s TV series Catweazle, while Padbury (then in her early 20s) was well-known for her role as Zoe on Doctor Who.

“Wendy was much, much older than us,” says Davies, “and she had just taken up with Melvyn Hayes, young Victor in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) though they’re divorced now. I had the hots for her at school, so to be working with Wendy Padbury was—oh wow!”

Other cast members with horror experience included Dracula Has Risen from the Grave’s Andrews and Howard (Berserk!) Goorney as the doctor. Several actors would later become familiar faces on British TV, including Williams in the period drama Upstairs Downstairs, Dotrice in the Britcom Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and Anthony Ainley (Reverend Fallowfield) as the Master in Doctor Who. Among the uncredited performers were wrestler-turned-actor Milton (Night Creatures Reid and Denis Gilmore, who had starred as Britain’s best-loved naughty schoolboy in a 1960s adaptation of the eternally popular Just William books.

Charlotte Mitchell, was impressed with both Haggard and the film in general: “Quite a happy film: I don’t think anyone was miserable except some of the young girls who didn’t know they’d got to take their clothes off. I’m sure that’s right: they weren’t warned really. Linda Hayden: oh she’s lovely, she’s a lovely girl. They were all nice. I liked Linda, she was great. I remember her with great affection. I remember thinking ‘she’s got something, that girl’. They did sort of cast her as bosomy sort of wenches in those days, but she was good: she was excellent.

The budget was set at £75,000, eventually rising to £83,000, which was still a very modest bill for a feature. Haggard, who was determined to make the countryside a character in its own right, added several locations to the schedule including Bix Bottom and Black Park. He and art director Arnold Chapkis discovered a ruined Norman church at Bix Bottom, which became the site of Angel Blake’s demonic rituals.

Even though they were only make-believe and the producers had confirmed that the site was deconsecrated, the crew’s activities upset quite a few of the locals. Haggard also found a house that reflected the period of the film so perfectly that it required little extra set-dressing, apart from the addition of some barn doors to conceal a garage. Wynne-Simmons recalls: “The location was a joy and the spring flowers, which Piers used very effectively, were a gift. Nothing like that could have happened in a studio. The very tight schedule meant that the script was barely finished by the time shooting began, and I even had to polish up a few lines of dialogue during the shoot. Piers was pleased to have me there for that reason.”

Satan’s Claw cameraman Dick Bush was also a considerable asset, promoting the value of dark foregrounds in the framing of shots. “Dick Bush was wonderful,” Haggard enthuses. “He was newly from the BBC. I’d seen his work on Jonathan Miller’s Alice and he was really interesting and fresh. For example, the scene in the church where the kids are running around, obviously up to no good, and we eventually end up on Angel – that was all managed in one shot and it was Dick’s idea that it could be done like that. It’s nouvelle vague, really – just put the camera on your shoulder, stage it and don’t worry about it, do the sound later and go. It’s commonplace now but at the time it was very new and exciting.”

The first scene to be filmed was Barry Andrews’ discovery of the skull in the field, but Linda Hayden’s first day of filming, actually her first take, proved to be more dramatic. Outfitted as ‘bad’ Angel, she had to run barefoot down a steep chalk cliff and she stumbled, cutting herself on the rocks. It was not a serious injury but because she had not had a tetanus jab, she was immediately rushed to hospital and remembers limping into A&E with her powdered face and huge hairy eyebrows, and scaring the life out of other patients! The production adhered closely to Wynne-Simmons’s script, with a couple of notable deviations – the first of which was the extremely unpleasant rape and murder of young Cathy Vespers, which the writer had originally intended should take place off-camera. “I was rather more squeamish than Piers about the rape and murder of Cathy,” he said. “The script stopped short of the actual event. I have to admit that Piers’s final version is one of the most powerful scenes in the film, although difficult to watch. How it got past the strict censorship of the day, I shall never know.” For his part, Haggard was rightly pleased with the scene, which was entirely improvised during a single day’s filming, including the chant that Margaret (Michele Dotrice) mutters as the rape is being committed: “Hail Behemoth, spirit of the dark. Take thou my blood, my flesh, my skin and walk…” – which is the first time the demon is given a name (it was not named in the script).

The director is also proud of the sequence leading up to the rape, when Cathy is accosted by two boys who take her to the ruined chapel where she is subsequently attacked.

“When the red-haired boy and the other chap ensnare Cathy with the hawthorn on the bushes, the mixture of the beauty of the setting but also the implication that something terrible is going to happen. I’m very fond of that.”

Wynne-Simmons remembers a bizarre detail about the filming of the rape scene: “Wendy Padbury and her rapist had to do a wild-track. The only available microphone had already been rigged up high, so they both had to stand on boxes to do it, screaming and groaning at a microphone in the sky.”

The second deviation from the script was the film’s climax. The original had a dark conclusion, in which all the villagers who had joined the cult were gunned down by the Judge and his men. “There had been evils in the old religions, but the forces of the law and the Christian Church could be just as violent, often more so,” Wynne-Simmons noted. “It did not seem right that everyone should just smile at what the Judge had done. The producers thought differently. They preferred a clear cut victory of the forces of good over the forces of evil.

“Fortunately, at the very last moment, Piers found a freeze- frame in the rushes, which saved the situation. By the way that Patrick Wymark’s eye looked through the fire, it was possible to believe that he himself now represented the powers of evil. This was the perfect compromise, and the ending is nicely ambiguous.” Piers Haggard says, “We were in quite a pickle over what to do about the end because it was patently obvious to me and the producers there was no chance of us doing what was in the script.

“I think I managed to convince them that the freeze-frame on the sword (the Judge uses a sword-and-crucifix combo to dispatch the demon, which was a compromise agreed between Haggard, Wynne-Simmons and the producers after they originally wanted him to wade into the furor wielding a cross) and the devil’s eye in the flames would be an effective way to finish.

“It would be ambiguous, but none of us had any brilliant solutions. Putting the village to the sword would have been a week’s shooting on that budget and eight minutes of film or something. We didn’t have the resources.”

Like another classic British witchcraft film, Curse of the Demon, Blood is slightly hindered by the climactic appearance of the devil (or at least, a devil) himself. Summoned/constructed by the children under the influence of Hayden’s Angel now dressed in a white shift and sporting extraordinary eyebrows—Satan is seen only briefly before the Judge and his companions arrive to vanquish him in a final scene which can charitably be described as confusing.

That final shot could also be considered something of a bookend to one of the first shots in the film: the close-up of a very real-looking eye inside the devil’s skull. In combination, the two shots suggest a narrative and visual circularity – that in the cold madness of their individual gazes, the devil and the Judge have become one. Perhaps, framed as it is between the frozen flames of the bonfire, the image of the Judge’s eye effectively represents a man whose actions have condemned him to Hell.

With filming complete, Piers Haggard took The Blood on Satan’s Claw to the cutting rooms and met with a concerned John Trevelyan, from the British Board of Film Censors. “John came to discuss the rape scene because of his problem with the combination of sex and violence. We made a few trims to it – a couple of little cuts – shortening a shot by a couple of feet to make it less explicit. While we were editing the rape, I wrote him a letter in which I exclaimed with heartfelt sincerity how I had absolutely no intention to corrupt the audience. Of course it was a director’s half-truth! Whereupon he was very nice and we did a deal about it.” In an interview published several years ago, Malcolm Heyworth recalled Trevelyan also expressing concern about the scene in the church, when a naked Angel Blake attempts to seduce the Reverend Fallowfield. “It wasn’t the fact that she was nude – it was the fact that she was in a church with a priest.”

Granted an unsurprising X certificate in September 1970, Blood on Satan’s Claw was shown to critics four months later. The Monthly Film Bulletin called it “a potentially intriguing amalgamation of Witchfinder General and Children of the Damned,” singling out Hayden for special praise, but cautioning that was the film progresses, its script and direction lose in subtlety and gain in crudeness.” Films and Filming wrote, “The contrast of natural settings works excellently to heighten the sense of inescapable evil which selects its victims apparently without motivation.” In the U.S., the film was released by Cannon on a double bill with Beast in the Cellar, with the New York Times observing, “It has a good deal of the quality of an H.P. Lovecraft work, in the vulnerability of even its heroic characters,” while Kinematograph Weekly called it “A very good example of its creepy species…with a remarkably successful atmosphere of chilling supernatural menace.”

It was composer Marc Wilkinson who made the last invaluable contribution to the film, providing a chilling and memorable score. He and Haggard had met at the National Theatre, where Wilkinson was Director of Music and composer-in-residence. A couple of years before, he had written the music for Lindsay Anderson’s If… “It would be much less of a film without Marc’s score,” Haggard concedes. Wilkinson recalls that the compositions for Satan’s Claw came easily and that neither Haggard nor Wynne-Simmons knew anything about the music until it was recorded. It took him about a month to complete the score and two of its more unusual components are Wilkinson’s use of the Ondes Martenot and the cimbalom, which lend the music many of its more sinister hues. He also employed the infamous ‘Devil’s Interval’—a descending chromatic scale which, centuries ago, was considered so diabolic that the Church tried to suppress it.

Directed by Piers Haggard
Produced by Malcolm B. Heyworth
Peter L. Andrews
Written by Robert Wynne-Simmons
additional material
Piers Haggard

Patrick Wymark as The Judge
Linda Hayden as Angel Blake
Barry Andrews as Ralph Gower
Michele Dotrice as Margaret
Wendy Padbury as Cathy Vespers
Anthony Ainley as Reverend Fallowfield
Charlotte Mitchell as Ellen
Tamara Ustinov as Rosalind Barton
Simon Williams as Peter Edmonton
James Hayter as Squire Middleton
Howard Goorney as The Doctor
Avice Landone as Isobel Banham
Robin Davies as Mark Vespers
Godfrey James as Angel’s Father
Roberta Tovey has an uncredited role as the coven member who lures Padbury’s character to her death.

The Dark Side#165

2 thoughts on “The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) Retrospective

  1. Very interesting write up about what went on BTS of the filming of this classic. The rape scene had left a strong impression but what was cut by the BBFC that was never actually known? Did the actor who played the rapist really went completely nude and took his pants off in front of the other actors, did Wendy Padbury went nude herself, did they wore modesty coverings? Only the actors and film crew knew and there were plenty but we hear nothing.

    Liked by 1 person

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