“one of the most visceral horrors in the canon”
who had cut his directing teeth on such TV fare as Callan and ITV Playhouse. “I’m not interested in a horror film unless it has a sort of poetic or a truly imaginative mind-extending theme. The thing that did appeal to me was the rural setting. I grew up in the country, and so the horrors of the woods was something that was very tangible and real from my childhood.”
For the leading role of the local judge, Tigon had sought out horror stalwarts Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Both turned it down. Eventually, they went with Patrick Wymark, famous for a long stint on the ITV drama The Power Game. “I was thrilled with Patrick,” says Haggard. “He was powerful and terrifying.” Wymark is indeed a towering presence in the film, but Blood On Satan’s Claw would turn out to be his last role. He died of a heart attack, aged 44, only two months after filming wrapped.
Also famous from the small screen was Wendy Padbury, who had just come off a year- long stint on Doctor Who. She was cast as Cathy, a young girl whose rape and murder at the hands of the possessed group is one of the most powerful scenes in the movie.
“When I first read the script, there was no nudity for me,” Padbury tells SFX. “But during the lunch break before shooting the scene in the afternoon, [ Piers Haggard] took me for a walk on location and explained that a certain amount of nudity was paramount to the scene working. As a young actress, and this being my first big part in a feature film I agreed, albeit reluctantly. The scene was harrowing to shoot and afterwards, even the cameraman said that it was one of the most difficult scenes he had had to shoot. He also said that he didn’t think that the whole scene would ever be passed by the censors so I shouldn’t worry too much. He turned out to be absolutely right. Much of the scene had to be cut.”
To set his film apart from what he considered the “staginess” of the Hammer movies, Haggard insisted on filming as much on location as he could. Filming took place in and around Bix Bottom Valley in Oxfordshire, Black Park in Buckinghamshire and Pinewood Studios.
“I was very demanding about locations,” says Haggard. “The main location – Bix Bottom – I found that. It was absolutely perfect as there are a huge variety of unspoilt woods, and in the middle of it was this farmhouse, that was actually someone’s weekend place. I really hungered for that location, and [ the producers] were not pleased as it was further from Pinewood than they’d intended. This was supposed to be a small budget film – you could have half an hour’s drive from Pinewood and no more because of the overtime. It was patently obvious to me that we could make a wonderful film with that location and I managed to persuade them to fund the overtime.
“We went over budget, I think it was a budget of £ 60,000 which was par for the course for a small budget film then, and it went to £ 75,000, or something like that. But
there wasn’t a lot of fuss about the money, and as the film came out, people saw that it had been worth it.”
It may only be three films strong, but the folk- horror mini genre still looms large. There are nods to it in both Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and especially A Field In England, while many moments in The League Of Gentlemen owe a sizable debt to the movies of Reeves, Haggard and Hardy. Haggard isn’t blind to his film’s thematic kinship to Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man, but believes all were a reaction against the horror styles of the time.
“I remember being incredibly impressed by Witchfinder General and thinking, ‘ My God, how slick!’ and the director, Michael Reeves, was very skilful and fluid, and much more expert than I felt at the time. I think it’s still a good film, but I think my film has probably got more heart. It has other virtues, different virtues. I think the reasons why those films were made was partly because the standard Hammer Horror Dracula stuff was so tedious. So predictable, and so obviously studio. You know, low- budget Pinewood, Elstree, pretty boring old shots, not very atmospheric lighting, cliched scripts. It got very stale, so I guess in their way, the various people involved in these, they all come from different places. There was a market for English horror, and here’s a group of people at around the same time saying we can do it more interestingly.”
The movie had been filmed with the name Satan’s Skin. Its eventual title is still one that bristles with Haggard. It was distributed first in the US by AIP, whose president, Samuel Arkoff ( whose CV is filled with such shabby movie fare as Blacula, I Was A Teenage Werewolf and The Thing With Two Heads) demanded a name change to the more drive- in friendly Blood On Satan’s Claw.
“My heart sank,” says Haggard, “because that put it right into a schlocky category, which was obviously exactly what he was trying to do to get an audience. I was really quite sad about that because, to be honest, I had cultural pretensions. I wanted it to be seen as a film, just a film. I think in the UK it would have had a better reception if it had been called Satan’s Skin. I think they were more or less kept away by the title.”
The film may not have done the business of Witchfinder or any of Hammer’s 1970 releases, but Haggard says he’s been accosted many times over the years by movie fans and film buff directors who talk up the movie. “In the States in the 80s,” says Haggard, “I met people who’d say, ‘ Didn’t you do Blood On Satan’s Claw?’ So that felt nice. I was relieved then.”
“Behind that inelegant title is one of the best British horror pictures of the ’ 70s,” director Joe Dante said recently. “I played it to a packed house at the New Beverly Theatre in Hollywood about a year or two ago and it was warmly received.”
Haggard himself last viewed the movie a few years ago, and was impressed save for the ending. “What Robert had actually written was that the judge arrived with troops and they kill every last person in the village in order to stamp out the infection, as it were. And obviously you’d cut to the bottom of a hedgerow and there would be the dreadful lurgy lurking. But we couldn’t possibly afford that, so that was cut. No one was about to give me an army, and let me burn a village.”
For all of Blood On Satan’s Claw’s faults, it remains one of the chilliest, oddest, most visceral horrors in the canon. It deserves its place next to both Witchfinder and The Wicker Man and maybe now some of their critical glory will finally rub off on this long- ignored horror great.
The Village People’s popularity had finally dropped to one in nine. Admiral Ackbar’s hairy uncle blagged his way backstage.
Linda Hayden, clothed. For now.
The family was very proud of its collaborative cross- stitch efforts. “What did you say about my cravat?”