Its renewed cinematic spread can, perhaps, be dated to Mark Gatiss‘s re-identification of its typology in his short documentary series, A History Of Horror, although the genus was first identified as such in Rod Cooper’s prescient review of The Blood On Satan’s Claw itself on its original release in 1970.
The film, directed with some assurance by Piers Haggard, is remarkable in many ways, not least for its evident craftsmanship, an attention to detail which draws the viewer in, coaxing them into taking things seriously despite the script’s occasional and mostly unintentional lapses into humour (“If she sink, you done a murder,” muses one would-be witchfinder, a little too close to a sketch show yokel). In particular, Dick Bush’s cinematography establishes each scene as a tableau, often foregrounding a telling detail, such as the first sighting of Anthony Ainley’s Reverend Fallowfield, charming, and in turn being charmed by, a snake. Equally effective is Marc Wilkinson’s score, its bucolic prettiness shrieking with the tension of bowed catgut at pivotal moments.
Set at a time when rumours of witchcraft have been discredited, and the belief in it buried, at least among sophisticated city-folk, the film insinuates that the graves of the old religions are only shallow and all too readily disturbed. When Barry Andrews’ Ralph, its ploughman protagonist, unearths a skull whose single staring eyeball has survived the worms that have stripped its surrounding flesh, he unwittingly unleashes a contagion that will primarily infect the village young.
Its symptoms manifest in a hectic excess of delinquency and adolescent sex, the fervour of those affected whipped up by Linda Hayden’s magnificently manipulative Angel Blake, as luminously unrepentant as Lucifer and, in later scenes, with eyebrows that anticipate the vogue for thick thatches of recent years.
As well as a feverish hysteria, the illness has more visceral effects, including a bride-to-be who is dragged into the depths of a lascivious madness as she develops razor-sharp claws. More quietly disquieting is when the afflicted sprout thick, unruly hair on otherwise unblemished flesh. “That’s what they call the devil’s skin,” one minor character helpfully exposits.
A distillation of three separate tales by Robert Wynne-Simmons, and adapted by him in conjunction with Haggard, occasionally the joins show, perhaps most crucially in the dramatically convenient but otherwise quixotic behaviour of Patrick Wymark’s Judge, who rides a carriage out of the plot for no good reason. It’s like Emma’s Frank Churchill ostensibly getting a haircut, only to thunder back in order to drive the story to its conclusion.
After the careful calibrations by which the screws have been tightened, the climax seems to come prematurely, albeit after a moment of restraint that chafes against cliché. The torch-wielding peasants who seek to root out the evil walk quietly, and in single file, less a rabble and more a presentiment in colour of Anton Corbijn’s video for Joy Division’s Atmosphere.
Still, the film’s potency is in the way it lingers beyond the freeze frame of its final moments, perhaps because, ending in that way, the audience is not quite let off the hook but must remain suspended, between good and evil, not quite assured which way the balance will tip.