PIERS HAGGARD 1939-2023
Remembering the folk horror pioneer
“I WASN’T REALLY INTERESTED in Dracula,” recalled Piers Haggard, director of Blood On Satan’s Claw, a film that traded the traditional gothic chills of Hammer for a new and disquieting strain of folk horror, rooted in the British soil. “I was interested in the dark things that people feel, and the dark things that happen.”
Born in London, he began his career in theatre, with a directing traineeship at the prestigious Royal Court. Television work followed, while a stint as an interpreter for Michelangelo Antonioni on elliptical 1966 thriller Blow-up proved an entrée into the world of cinema.
Haggard’s first film, I Can’t… I Can’t aka Wedding Night arrived in 1970. A commercial failure, it nevertheless saw him offered the chance to direct Blood On Satan’s Claw, then known as Satan’s Skin. “I had barely seen a horror film,” he confessed. “I was frightfully serious.” But the “dark poetry” of the Devilhaunted landscape appealed to him: “the nooks and crannies of woodland, the edges of fields”. One of the film’s most unforgettable images sees an eyeball staring out of the earth from a newly disinterred skull.
Winning a BAFTA for 1978’s Pennies From Heaven, Haggard made Quatermass the next year, resurrecting Nigel Kneale’s boffin hero of the 1950s in an apocalyptic near-future Britain. 1980’s The Fiendish Plot Of Fu Manchu saw Peter Sellers playing Sax Rohmer’s mastervillain – it was released two weeks after the star died - while 1981’s Venom found Oliver Reed and Klaus Kinski embroiled in a killer snake yarn. Other genre credits included three episodes of Gerry Anderson’s Space Precinct and The Lifeforce Experiment, a 1994 TV movie adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s afterlife tale “The Breakthrough”.
An active campaigner for directors’ rights, Haggard was awarded the OBE in the 2016 New Year Honours. NS