The small film subgenre of British folk horror is easily overlooked, with most casual fans only being able to point to a single example, the excellent and well-regarded cult classic The Wicker Man. But there were a few other sterling examples that deserve their place in the earthwork circle, as it were, such as The Devil Rides Out (based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley) and the terrific Vincent Price vehicle Witchfinder General. There is also the rather underrated gem we’re discussing today.
1970’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (known alternately as Satan’s Skin or The Devil’s Touch) was the follow-up to Tigon British Film Productions’ hit Witchfinder General, and though it’s not quite as great or iconic as that earlier film, it still has much to recommend it. Tigon, incidentally, was a smaller horror production company that got somewhat overshadowed by film behemoths Hammer Films (who were famous for their Dracula films and their pioneering formula of gore and heaving boobies), and Amicus Productions (who were famous for their rad anthology films like The House That Dripped Blood and Vault of Horror).
The Blood on Satan’s Claw is set in a tiny English village somewhere around the end of the 17th century. Affable farmer Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews) is plowing some fields one day and happens to unearth a janky-looking skull with one staring eyeball and what appear to be tufts of fur. Alarmed, Ralph summons the local judge to come check out his find, but of course, once the judge arrives, the skull is no longer there. The judge (played with great sardonic relish by Patrick Wymark) pooh-poohs all these insufferable rubes and their silly superstitions, and goes about his judgely way.
Meanwhile, lanky local Peter Edmonton (Simon Williams), who looks like a Bee Gee doing Renaissance cosplay, brings his betrothed Rosalind (Tamara Ustinov) home to meet the family. His aunt is a stone-cold bitch to the girl, and forces her to sleep up in the stinky, unused attic. Peter tries to make the best of things, and promises he’ll be up for some farm-fresh lovin’ after his disapproving relatives have gone to bed.
But later that night, Rosalind apparently sees something horrifying in her room and starts screaming her hussy head off, prompting Aunt Twatface and the other old guy living there to do the only rational thing, which is to board her up in the attic until the men with the butterfly nets can get there to cart her off to the nuthouse. As she’s carried away, she shoots her fiancé a wicked grin, and we see that one of her hands has morphed into a claw. Peter, understandably, is bereft, but his relatives are all insensitive and shit, essentially telling him that he dodged a bullet and he should be happy that he didn’t end up married to some wanton demonic harlot. Peter, obviously, seems less than convinced.
Soon afterwards, all hell literally breaks loose in the village. All the young’uns start hanging out together and playing creepy “games” out in the woods, and some of them develop icky patches of crepe werewolf hair on various parts of their anatomy. They stop turning up to their Sunday school classes, and act defiant and contemptuous toward village priest Reverend Fallowfield (Anthony Ainley).
Incidents begin to escalate. Peter has a vision that his hand has also become a claw, and slices it off in a frenzy. The children lure friendly young Simon le Bon lookalike Mark Vespers (Robin Davies) into the woods and murder him, bragging to his mother that they have done so. It soon comes to light that all of the town’s youngsters have fallen under the spell of nubile hottie Angel Blake (Linda Hayden), who apparently got in on the ground floor of the Satan worship and is now running the show. Angel attempts to seduce the Reverend and then accuses him of raping her; orders her followers to hack off their own limbs or forcibly take limbs from others to apparently reconstruct her coming Master out of the severed parts; and perhaps worst of all, paints on crazy Wolfman Jack eyebrows just a touch too high over her natural ones, making her look like some pagan blonde version of Frida Kahlo.
After Ralph’s intended, the adorable Cathy Vespers (Wendy Padbury), is brutally raped and sacrificed by the child cult (in what is actually a fairly disturbing scene, due to the frighteningly realistic terror on Cathy’s face), the judge is persuaded to come back to the village to deal with all the devilry that his rational ass was initially so dismissive of. The end of the film is actually a bit of a letdown, as it’s somewhat abrupt and anticlimactic, and I’m not too sure how I feel about the final reveal of the Supreme Evil Overlord, who looks a bit too much like a short dude wearing a gorilla suit and a papier-mache Halloween mask, but hey, it was 1970, and I can forgive a touch of cheesiness in costuming, especially since the camera doesn’t really linger on the monster before he is summarily dispatched.
If you’re a fan of this type of pagan British horror, you probably owe it to yourself to see this one, even though it’s not quite at the same level as the other folk horrors I mentioned. Despite the cast looking oh-so-painfully seventies, and despite the over-the-top accents and regionalisms, and despite the pacing being slightly off, this is actually quite an enjoyable little horror flick with some genuinely tense scenes, a bit of decent gore (such as one character having her fur patch sliced off by a doctor, and later getting her leg caught in a bear trap), and some pretty fantastic cinematography of the English countryside.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends, and if you suddenly develop an unexplained area of coarse black hair somewhere on your person, consult your local witchfinder immediately.
Top of the afternoon, minions! I just realized I hadn’t posted anything in either of my movie series for several days, and I felt sorta bad about that. I also realized that I have come down with the plague and don’t really feel like doing anything other than lying in my bed and wallowing in a cold-medicine-fueled delirium. But because I love you guys and have a pathological need to do something productive even when I’m in the throes of deathly illness, I’ve decided to compromise by discussing a nice, short little silent film known as The Red Spectre. Here it is:
Released in France in 1907, The Red Spectre was directed by Segundo de Chomón and is one of the few surviving examples of early-twentieth-century “trick” films. It’s only ten minutes long and doesn’t have a “plot” per se, but I gotta admit, for 1907, this thing looks fucking amazing. How is it in color, Goddess? You may be asking. Glad you asked. It’s in color because it was painstakingly hand-tinted, frame by frame. That’s hardcore, Goddess, you may be saying. And yes, I would have to agree. Also, the effects are pretty damn cool-looking, and honestly, since I don’t know much about early film technique and can’t really figure out how they did some of them, I’m just gonna assume MAGIC IS REAL.
We open in a little flaming hell-grotto with a happy dancing coffin. The coffin fades away and reveals a skeleton dude with horns and a fabulous cape, which he proceeds to open all TA-DA, BITCHES, I’M THE DEVIL. WELCOME TO MY WORLD OF EVIL AND KICK-ASS SPECIAL EFFECTS. He swishes back and forth a couple times, since that’s evil’s prerogative, and then the rocks in the background part, and then there’s like a cave background with stalactites and shit. He poses some more, like CHECK OUT THE BATCAVE, PUNY MORTALS, and then he waves his bony arms and there’s smoke and fire, and oh, I guess he’s holding a torch or a bottle rocket or something, and then he holds the torch down near the floor and GIRLS APPEAR! I get the feeling that he really digs showing off his magical girl-appearing fire wand. Evidently the girls are his harem of captured souls, and even though there are only five of them I’m not gonna hate. Maybe he’s just a minor demon, after all, or maybe he’s just starting out in the soul-capturing biz. Or maybe it’s the beginning of the month and he had a shitload of souls that he dispatched earlier and this is the new batch. I don’t know the protocol, so far be it from me to dis the Red Spectre’s meager soul count at this juncture.
The girls dance around in a circle all pagan-like, and the Spectre stands behind them with his arms crossed all like WORD. Then the girls disappear and turn into little flaming will-o-the-wisps. He dances around with his cape like he’s trying to wrangle them, but he can’t quite do it, or maybe he just doesn’t want to set his cape on fire. Then he magicks his torch back again, and with it he materializes two elaborate gold cauldron thingies which he lights with flame like it’s the Devilympics up in here. Then he does the WORD pose again, and then girls appear in the flames in the Olympic bowls. They hold their hands out and he takes one girl in each hand and helps them down to the floor, all gentlemanly, and guides them to the back of the grotto. Then he’s all IMMA BLOW YOUR MIND and draws his arms together and the gold cauldrons scoot close together in the middle of the stage. From beneath his voluminous cape, he produces a huge roll of what looks like black Hefty bag material. He lays the roll across the cauldrons and rolls out a length, then picks up one of the girls and puts her on the barbecue and wraps her up like a Triple Steak Burrito from Taco Bell. Then he waves his caped arms again, all EENIE MEENIE CHILI BEANIE and the girl-burrito floats up in the air, then catches fire and suddenly disappears, much like the contents of your intestines do after eating a Triple Steak Burrito from Taco Bell. He then repeats the procedure with the second woman, because where girl-burritos are concerned, you really need to see the whole thing twice to get the full effect.
Then he makes another TA-DA gesture with his hand and produces a pitcher outta THIN AIR. This is better than Mindfreak, you guys, for real. He takes what are presumably the girls’ ashes out of the cauldrons and puts them in the pitcher. Then HUZZAH the cauldrons disappear, and then at stage left there’s a puff of smoke and VOILA, Peter Pan appears! Okay, not really Peter Pan, I think it’s a girl who’s supposed to be a good spirit or a wood sprite or something, but y’know, she has some Mary Martin action going on. And the Spectre looks at her all SO WE MEET AGAIN, MY NEMESIS, and she waves her hand like Vanna White and some curtains part in the back and there are more girls back there, and Peter Pan seems to be showing Spectre something and he’s pretty indignant about it, but she’s all DEAL WITH IT and waves her hand to close the curtains again. She points at him and then points at herself, all GIRLS RULE AND SPECTRES DROOL, and he looks all huffy with his ash-filled pitcher, because he just wants to do a little spot of evil in peace, for fuck’s sake, and he doesn’t need no womany do-gooder wood sprite cramping his nefarious style and being a nag, man. She keeps pointing at him and then he starts to come at her all YOU’RE GONNA GET IT NOW, HO, but she ducks behind a rock and disappears. Minx.
Anyway, Spectre is all FINALLY, SHE’S GONE, NOW I CAN GET ON WITH THINGS, and he poofs a properly Satanic-looking pedestal into existence. The base of the pedestal looks like a caduceus, and the top of the pedestal holds three bottles. Spectre picks up the pedestal and carries it really close to the camera. I don’t know why he didn’t just poof it into existence closer to the camera in the first place, but maybe he carved that pedestal and wanted everyone to appreciate his handiwork. He spent a long time making that, you guys. Sure, he could have just magicked it, but he likes to work with his hands sometimes, do things the old fashioned way. It relaxes him, dontcha know.
He pours the ashes, which are now liquid somehow, into the first bottle, and hey, there’s a tiny girl in the bottle! I guess he likes to shrink down his ladies and keep them in bottles to maintain their freshness. Turns out there are girls in all the bottles, revealed as he pours the black liquid in over them. Spectre is all smiles as he surveys his bottled ladies, and then he turns the bottles until they’re white and we can’t see the teeny girls anymore. Then he carries the pedestal back to the center of the stage, and then POOF the Wood Sprite is back! She seems a bit put out, all YOU CAN’T KEEP GIRLS IN BOTTLES, WTF ARE YOU EVEN THINKING WITH THAT and Spectre’s all YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME, but I guess she is because Wood Sprite poofs the pedestal away herself. Spectre’s all BITCH, I WAS USING THAT and chases her around, but she disappears again and Spectre is all FUCK THIS SHIT, I JUST CAN’T DEAL.
But he recovers quickly from his tantrum, and then poofs another thing into existence. The pedestal base looks the same, but now the top of it looks like some kind of fancy screen or whiteboard in three sections. He drags the pedestal close again and starts turning the sections around one by one. There’s another girl on the back of each screen, so this is like a screen-in-screen effect, which seems pretty high-tech for 1907. The girl on the screen bows and sniffs a flower like she’s the queen of England, and Spectre turns the screen sections back around because he just can’t stand any more of her attention-whoring. The pedestal is taken back to the center of the stage, where a newly apparated Wood Sprite appears again and magicks it away. GOD, PETER PAN, I AM JUST TRYING TO DO MY ONE-DEMON TRIBUTE TO DAVID COPPERFIELD, WHY YOU GOTTA BUST MY CHOPS. She just laughs like Nelson Muntz (I presume) and runs away from him and disappears again. I know this is probably not what the filmmakers intended, but I’m starting to feel a little sorry for the devil here.
But, being the consummate professional, the Spectre knows that the show must go on. He does a dramatic gesture and causes another big screen to appear, but this one is super fancy and gold, with a big devil head at the top and devil hands on the sides. The screen has another three girls posing and dancing around on it. Spectre goes around behind the screen and then rolls under it, which is the cutest thing, and then he’s lying on his back and waving his arms, and the picture on the screen changes to a single smiling woman in a really over-the-top feathered chapeau. Then another wave of the skeleton arms, and the picture changes to what looks like an old couple indulging in some modest PDA. And then ABRACADABRA, the screen disappears and there’s that troublesome sprite again, and Spectre is REALLY mad because that was his greatest illusion, goddammit! He tries to throw down on her and enfold her with his Liberace cape, but she keeps disappearing and he’s all FUUUUUUUUUUUCK.
Getting on with things again, Spectre waves at the backdrop and it lifts up with much flame and smoke and rock & rollery, like KISS are about to come out. Then he starts dancing, and I guess the film is running backwards because his cape is moving all weirdly, and then boxes start flying in from off-screen like he works at the world’s most aggressive post office and it’s the Christmas rush. He catches them like a pro, and begins stacking them, and then they magically cohere into a big square and they’re a screen too, because in the hell-grotto, everything is a TV showing episodes of “Real Housewives of the Underworld.” The box-stack-screen is showing a dowdy old woman in another crazy feathered hat feeding a dog, and Spectre stands there presenting it with his hand like he’s super proud of the dog thing, y’all. Then he runs his hand up the side of the boxes, and there’s another puff of smoke and then it disappears, and then, you guessed it, up pops Peter Pan. They have an altercation, Peter Pan waves her arms and all the cave curtains in the back raise up and there’s just fire and explosions everywhere like we’ve stepped into a proto-Michael Bay movie and Spectre, defeated, lets Peter Pan lead him toward the rear of the stage, where he spreads his arms like he won a trophy and acts all like YEAH, I WON ALL THIS SHIT, and then all the girls that he burritoed and bottled up earlier come rising up out of the stage at Peter Pan’s mystical gesturing. So I guess Spectre got his evil butt kicked and all his trapped girl souls got released by Peter Pan. ALL THAT WORK FOR NOTHING.
And then there’s one girl remaining, and Spectre tries to enfold her with his cape like he’s gonna give her a noogie, and she looks like she’s into it, but then BAM the girl turns into Peter Pan and everything turns red and the cave rocks come back and Peter Pan knocks the poor Spectre on the ground and just stomps the shit out of him with her little fairy shoes, and then as a final fuck you, she pours some stuff from his pitcher onto the poor fella, and then he’s just a cape, which she lifts up to reveal that our previously spry Spectre is now just a lame-ass skeleton from Mrs. Fisher’s second period bio class. She throws the skeleton on the ground and then puts on his cape, all OOH, THIS IS QUITE FETCHING AND I HAVE YOUR PITCHER TOO SO I’M YOUR GOD NOW, SATAN. SUCK IT. And then that’s the end.
Like I said, this is pretty incredible for being more than a hundred years old, what with all the really pretty decent screen effects and the hand-coloring and the devilish shenanigans. A fun little experiment in early film, all the more valuable because it’s one of very few that survived the years.