Folk Horror: Blood on Satan’s Claw

Blood on Satan’s Claw (Piers Haggard, 1971)

I’ve become a bit obsessed with ‘folk horror’ recently, especially since I wrote about it in my recent post. So I thought I might watch and review some of it, looking specifically to dig out the signifiers of folk horror (flowers, masks, blood rituals etc) and look at some of the crucial themes of the genre like the religious frictions, the use of ruins and ancient stones as places of worship/sacrifice and an obsession with the land. I’ll be doing some reviews of the main films in the movement as well as some of the TV stuff too.

So, Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw – watched on the advice of Mark Gatiss – is the last of the big three folk horror films that I hadn’t seen (I’ll revisit the others to do smaller reviews). 17th Century rural England, somewhere about the home counties, a young farmer turns something up with his plough. It’s remains, neither human nor animal. His discovery predicates some very strange goings on in the village as Satan himself, or ‘the fiend’ as they call him, walks among them corrupting the young, especially the girls. What’s he up to? Why, rebuilding himself from the skin of the children of course. It’s a labour intensive practise that involves a bit of ritualised blind man’s buff, a pinch of rape and some bloody big scissors.

Foot and Mouth and Deformed Skull Discovery

This is resolutely folk horror, no hint of anything else in there really, Witchfinder General has something of the revenge thriller and The Wicker Man is a detective story (at least to begin with). No, Blood… is quite pure in its crystallisation of the sub-genre and for my money a bloody good film too. That is if, and this is quite a big if for some people, you can look past the creature effects. Nothing dates a film quite as much as dodgy creature effects and the dark lord looks, sadly, fairly dated now. But that shit don’t bother me none whatsoever, no sir. Because I was loving the whole feeling, the primal simplicity of the whole thing – stripping the British countryside back to something dangerous, fearful and full of fertile promise.  The film is brimming with a kind of raw and rural sexuality and it successfully taps into the vein exposed by Hammer for lacing horror with a bit of nudity.

Boy bands have moved on since the 17th Century

So what makes it folk horror? Well let’s start with the obvious parts, the setting (time and place) and the characters strike a familiar chord. The country was a god-fearing place in the 17th Century but superstition of devils and demons still held sway, especially in rural areas.  As with almost any British film you get a lovely broad swathe of the class system involved too. It should be noted that being poor means you are much more likely to be killed, possessed or enchanted into becoming a follower/acolyte. Perhaps it’s because we’re much more likely to believe poor people are stupid or inherently evil. Certainly the first person to be affected has already been maligned for being ‘a farmer’s daughter’ yet when the noble chap she was betrothed to encounters the same force he is capable of lopping off his demonically possessed hand, Evil Dead style. So whilst the teens from the village are hell-bent on serving the dark master it falls to the ‘Judge’ to bring the Lord’s vengeance over from London.

She went out with Robin Askwith. Why?

Signifiers:

Here’s where I try and list the things that make something a bit ‘folk horror’.

  • More so than any of the other folk horror films I’ve seen this film is seriously rooted in the earth, with the camera positioned low in the dirt and often climbing through the undergrowth. Shots seem to be happily positioned with characters obscured by greenery and vegetation.
  • Religious friction, this is a slightly more straightforward conflict than some of the other films – it’s just Christianity and forces of God against those of Satan. Satan does seem to have co-opted a fairly pagan bunch of rituals though. Perhaps this is some kind of comment on the land belonging to ol’ Nick prior to the civilising force of God, suggesting that druidic/pagan activities were tantamount devil worship? Either way, it’s present and pretty much to the fore.
  • The events are precipitated by the unearthed object, a recurring folk horror symbol.
  • Long white dresses/robes, plenty here including lovel Lynda Hayden disrobing from one to tempt the local priest.
  • Burning,  it ain’t folk horror unless some folk are getting barbecued. This occurs at the end, though it isn’t an innocent this time.
  • Flowers, it could have gone up with vegetation but I reckon the flower crowns and adornments can have their own mention, linking up with the small clutch of what looked like hawthorn held by the girl who first falls prey to possession.
  • When dealing with pagan rituals I always find it helps events go quite nicely if you have a procession. There’s one here leading up to a nasty bit of rape and it manages to get some flowing white robes in as well as floral crowns. Lovely stuff.
  • It would be remiss not to mention the presence of some ruins. Most of the meaty action in the film takes place in a ruined church which is lovely and apt.

3 thoughts on “Folk Horror: Blood on Satan’s Claw”

  1. Hello Chris

    I’m really interested in your piece on folk horror. Being a young lad in the 1970s/1980s, I grew up on Hammer House of Horror, Friday Night horror movies, Play for Today and, of course, the MR James adaptations at Christmas. Folk horror is making a bit of a resurgence (especially since Mark Gatiss namechecked it in his recent, excellent TV documentaries) and I am starting to think more deeply about why this is. Our fascination with what is suppressed obviously links to Freud’s uncanny, but why now? There is, in the digging up of these relics from seventies and eighties TV/film, an element of archaeology in itself. In this digital age, are we looking for something a little more tangible perhaps? Is the uncertainty (fear?) of a Britain being overwhelmed with concrete and steel directing us back to a past where we could actually see the life-forces of a pagan/rural/occult past before us? And are these films a way of restoring past certainties and of course uncertainties? So many questions.

    By the way, BFI have just released the Christmas horror stories on DVD/blu-ray. I’ve just watched ‘Stigma’ again and it’s a fascinating precursor of later ‘body horror’ as well as offering a glimpse into the architectural uncanny. Well worth seeing again.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    Regards

    Lance Hanson

    1. Cheers Lance, thanks for the heads up on the BFI release. I’ve not quite clicked on the whole ‘why’ of folk horror but I am still fascinated by it. Just a shame I only get to this blog once in a bloody blue moon!

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