The Bad Movie Report

The Blood on Satan's Claw

I may have made a bit of a mistake this week. After viewing this flick, I went to the Internet Movie Database, which is something I usually do during the actual writing of the review; I always like to use the cross-referenced filmographies to see what impact the people involved may have had on the genre, or even film in general.

Well, after ascertaining that there were no External Reviews listed for this movie (and oh, how I love finding those!), and checking some references, I found that there were User Comments, both at IMDb and Alas, I was a fool. I read them. Usually, I avoid them until after I've written and posted; I want my opinions and musings to stay my own. Now I have to fight the urge to refute and reference those comments. I'll have to satisfy those urgings by quoting one, who referred to this film as "One of the best Hammers". It's an easy mistake to make - but it's not Hammer. It's Tigon.

Make no mistake, Tigon British Films wanted to be Hammer, and they made some films toward that goal. The only other ones I can think of at this moment are the unfortunately tedious Doomwatch (which was, I believe, a pilot for a TV series), and the Peter Cushing vehicle The Blood Beast Terror, aka Deathshead Virgin, aka The Vampire Beast Craves Blood. At least with The Blood on Satan's Claw, they succeeded in achieving Hammer-ness (behold! I have created a new word!).

In 17th century rural England, Ralph (Barry Andrews) is plowing the mawster's field when he uncovers the bony remains of eeeeeew!"a fiend". Well, we're told it's a fiend. Whatever it is, it's fairly gruesome, with a worm crawling across its one intact eyeball. In any case, once Ralph returns with the visiting Judge (Patrick Wymark), they discover the diabolical thingamajig is missing, and the Judge pish-tushes its very existence.

The young master of the manor, Peter (Simon Williams), returns with what he hopes will be his blushing bride (Tamara Ustinov). Peter's ultra-prim aunt (Avice Landon) insists the girl sleep in the unused Attic Room, where she is summarily attacked by something lurking under the floorboards, and driven quite insane. As she is taken away to Bedlam, Peter catches a glimpse of her hand, which has been transformed into some manner of bestial claw.

EEEEEEWWW!Driven nearly mad himself by this turn of affairs, Peter resolves to spend the night in the Attic. Poking about the loose floorboards, he is grabbed by something with a shaggy claw. Escaping its clutches, Peter pulls a heavy trunk over the offending planks. Now I realize I am only speaking for myself here, but if confronted by phenomena like this, I personally would not only vacate the room, that floor, in fact the entire house.... but I would also hop on my horse and not stop until I was in the next county. Peter, on the other hand, slumps in the nearby bed and goes to sleep.

With the result that he is awakened in the middle of the night by a shaggy claw at his throat. Grabbing a nearby dagger, Peter hacks and saws away at the claw, raising quite a ruckus. The Judge bursts into the room, only to find that Peter has cut off his own right hand.

After attending to Peter, the village doctor shows the Judge an old book on demonology, which has an illustration that closely resembles Ralph's description of the fiend in the field. The Judge takes the book with him to London, where he must attend to "affairs of state". Enigmatically enough, he vouchsafes to the local squire, "You must have patience, even while people die...only thus can the whole evil be destroyed." Now that's an uplifting exit line.

Remember, Blondes=evil, Brunettes=innocenceTurns out he's right. A number of the local youth, led by teen hottie Angel Blake (Linda Hayden) is up to no good in the woods; they are reviving a coven which is itself bent on resurrecting the fiend Ralph dug up. Various people become afflicted with "The Devil's Skin", a hairy growth that presages the rather bloody loss of that body part to the piecemeal reconstruction of the demon.

This goes on for a while, until Peter decides enough is enough and rides off to London to fetch the Judge. The fiend, we are told, lacks only one leg before he is complete. Of course, it is poor Ralph, who started this whole thing, that discovers one of his legs has gone all hairy. Consumed not only by fear of the coven but also the Judge's upcoming purge, he locks himself in that troublesome Attic, which proves to be a mistake.

At a ruined church, the coven prepares for their hour of triumph; Ralph is mesmerized by a naked dancing girl until he wants to cut off his own leg (that's some dance). The judge chooses this moment to strike, with his secret weapon: a two-handed battle sword. Impaling the hopping, incomplete fiend on its length, the Judge drops it into a fire. The end.

Hmmmm, yes, rather sudden, isn't it? Someone realized this, as the entire final sequence is played out in slow motion. Still, eerie as that turns out to be, it's a bit of a surprise to discover that Old Scratch is vulnerable to five feet of steel and a bonfire.

A lot of people hold this movie in high regard; most of the User Comments are quite favorable, if not outright glowing. But does it qualify for "best of the Hammers"? Well, no. Everybody has their favorite (mine: Horror of Dracula), but Blood has a few too many shortcomings to truly shine in such rarefied atmosphere.

It must be said, first, that Blood on Satan's Claw plumbs the period of 17th century England quite well, eschewing the Victorian trappings of the Hammer offerings. We are in Witchfinder General territory here, with the new, scientific leanings of the city folk not making much headway against the superstitions of the country folk - especially not when those superstitions turn out to be all too true. The period feel is well-maintained throughout, with only a few hand-held camera scenes ruining the feel (or am I the only one who, when he sees a hand-held shot in a period piece, suddenly realizes there's some bloke with a movie camera running around the 17th century countryside?). The acting is similarly superb - too bad the picture does not always do right by its actors, which number among them some familiar faces.

"And you say this is called Silly Putty?"Patrick Wymark, making his final film appearance here, is no stranger to this territory - he was in the aforementioned Witchfinder General. He is also the most ill-served, as he must, at least twice, go from rationalist skeptic to Matthew Hopkins, Jr. in the space of a single line. When Peter travels to him for help, Wymark warns the young Lord, "I shall take measures... undreamt of!" The undreamt-of measures prove to be two vicious dogs and a big honking sword. It's a tribute to Wymark's confident presence that he pulls the character off, even maintaining, in the face of such inconsistencies, much dignity.

Suddenly AngelLinda Hayden, who also graced Taste the Blood of Dracula and Madhouse, does quite well as the young tart Angel, who gains no small measure of power as the fiend becomes more and more complete. It's unusual - and quite silly - that as she dons the diaphanous gowns of a full-time devil priestess, it was also found necessary to glue onto her forehead heavy Brooke Shields-type eyebrows. Good heavens, why? Is that some visual shorthand for evil that I missed?*

My final complaint involves the fiend itself. There is no doubt at all that the budget on Blood was low, though it looks quite handsome in spite of its poverty. For the most part, the fiend remains barely seen or heard - it's voice a bizarre, distorted buzzing that is Behold!  The lumpy face of Evil!disturbingly effective. Glimpsed hiding in the shadows, it is a caped, hooded monstrosity. But for some reason, in the final sequence, it was decided that the Face of Evil must be shown - in slow motion, no less - and Evil appears to be a lump of papier-mache. Why, oh why, couldn't well enough be left alone? So wretched is this creation, whatever it is, that I still have no idea what I was looking at. Uh, what that supposed to be a nose? Was that a chin? Aaaah, I don't know. Burn it, please, Mr. Wymark.

Overall, though, in spite of my bitching, Blood on Satan's Claw should be better known than it is. Not only is the storyline imaginative and different, but it also possesses several creepy scenes - most notably, the ones in that claustrophobic Attic. More than enough to recommend it to those searching for something in that most refined of tastes - Hammer Horror.



The Hammer that never was.

- August 1, 1999