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Film

40 years of 'Blood on Satan's Claw': Piers Haggard's grimey folk horror classic

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'The Blood on Satan's Claw' - Piers Haggard
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Whilst many horror films deal with the fragility and unpredictability of the human psyche, it is the subgenre of folk horror that closely inspects this particular subject. Picking apart the fear that lies behind the dread of the unknown, folk horror lays human insecurities to bear as it analyses the possibilities of human spite. In the realm of folk horror, forget a snarling beast or haunting paranormal presence, the greatest fear is that of a mysterious stranger, or, worse-still a sinister community.  

The fear of the ancient and unexplainable in an ever ordered world is a staple theme of folk horror, often following an ignorant outsider, or revolutionary community member looking to escape. This theme underpins the pioneers of the genre, with Witchfinder General, The Wicker Man and The Blood on Satan’s Claw each sharing an obsession with the power of place and the vulnerability of isolation. 

Sinister and nihilistic, The Blood on Satan’s Claw is perhaps the least-known of this ‘unholy trinity’, though it is no doubt one of the finest films of the subgenre, perfectly combining the ancient fears of the British countryside and the fear of the ‘other’. Well toeing the line between reality and fantasy, the folk horror classic directed by Piers Haggard often refers to satanic activities and the coming of the devil himself, though refrains from showing the demon in its monstrous form. It recalls a frequent motif of the subgenre in which the horrors are reserved from the townsfolk, when ‘the devil’ is glimpsed, often they lift off the mask to reveal a familiar human face. 

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Set in 17th century England, Haggard’s film depicts a village that slowly becomes possessed by a demonic force that is converting its children to become devil-worshipers. Drawing inspiration from the ancient terrors of the home country countryside, Piers Haggard revealed in A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss that the film is “about a complete breakdown of values”. Continuing to detail further, he added: “The thing that I think appealed to me was the rural setting. The nooks and crannies of woodland, the edges of fields, the ploughing, the labour, the sense of the soil was something that I tried to bring into the picture”. 

In The Blood on Satan’s Claw, terror does not fall from the sky, nor is it brought on by a sinister curse, the evil exists, and always has done, in the very soil beneath our feet and in the comfort of our own close communities. It is in this that Haggard’s film illustrates the very best of the subgenre, extracting the film’s horror from the everyday land and life that we experience on a day-to-day basis.

As the director further explained, “I didn’t want to do something which was larky, I wasn’t really interested in Dracula but I was interested in the dark things that people feel and the dark things that happen”.

Whilst The Wicker Man takes horror to the recognisable, if disassociated world of Summerisle, The Blood on Satan’s Claw brings the reality far closer to home, suggesting such terrors are not reserved for the estranged but are capable of arising like a bubbling virus within the familiar folk of a neighbouring community.

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