FEATURE: Shocktober '15 - The Blood on Satan's Claw

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.

Often hailed as one of the major films of folk horror (along with Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man), The Blood on Satan's Claw tells of a village corrupted by demonic possession. Ralph Gower, a farmhand, is ploughing a field when he finds the remains of a human head, still in full possession of one glaring eye. The discovery sets off a series of unfortunate and creepy events as the young people of the village slowly find themselves overcome by the devil. Patches of fur grow on bodies, claws appear where hands should be and slowly, people begin disappearing. The villagers turn to a local judge to attempt to stop it and he is convinced something satanic is at work.

Folk horror has made something of a comeback recently, via the work of Ben Wheatley with the decidedly trippy and elusive A Field in England and there's a colonial take on the way with the much anticipated The Witch. The Blood on Satan's Claw wasn't a success on release and has never quite reached the same critical acclaim or notoriety as its generic counterparts. It's an uneven film, one which manages to make its bucolic setting feel claustrophobic and threatening and shows us plenty of horrible situations, but it never quite gets its audience to tap into those emotions. It's a light chill, rather than one which sets deep into the bones.

That it was originally intended to be three separate but related stories, now reworked to take place within the one village, is apparent throughout the film which never quite smooths out that separation. The only character that connects the disparate threads is Ralph, the farmhand who finds the human head remains that begins the possession of the village. It's not quite enough to ensure the story feels like a cohesive whole. It interrupts the rhythm of the film and the tension that is built up in one sequence is lost before the next manages to build it again. As a result, it never quite manages to succeed in keeping up the chill that it promises early on in the proceedings.

The individual sequences themselves though do carry a great, sinister quality, though some are more successful than others. The drowning of a potential witch is undermined by knowing that the woman in question has been involved in an earlier ritualistic scene. That ritual though is easily one of the most effective moments, luring one of the film's more innocent and romantic characters into a situation we see largely from her perspective. The camera looms over her threateningly one minute, then becomes her terrified perspective the next, creating a dizzying effect throughout. It's combined with her erstwhile lover trying to find her after hearing her screams and is the most emotional it gets throughout the narrative. 

The Blood on Satan's Claw does have one cohesive element that is easily the film's greatest strength and that is the score from Marc Wilkinson. It perfectly marries the combination of pastoral strings, evoking Elgar and Williams in its simple romanticism, clashing with the almost discordant undercurrents to produce a brilliantly unsettling effect. Even in the film's quieter moments, the lullaby-like refrain and the jarring notes that punctuate it echoes the corruption of the village's youth, their innocence dying as the demonic possession runs rampant.

A fascinating if uneven example of the folk horror sub-genre, The Blood on Satan's Claw never quite gets to the giddy heights of sickening dread that The Wicker Man achieved, but there are moments of greatness within it and a score that more than makes up for the moments in which its tension is lost.

- Becky

You can find Becky's other Shocktober reviews here.

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