1971’s is The Blood on Satan’s Claw is like the raw opal in Uncut Gems. It shows flashes of almost hypnotic beauty, bright and separated out like fish scales; you could find its unrefined state primitively appealing, or you could think that somebody needed to cut and polish the hell out of it. Either way, there are certain people it’s going to speak to deeply. Either way, somebody, like me, is going to come along and say that it’s not really worth that much.
Let’s start with the good, with those colorful and slightly surreal flashes of brilliance. While it looks undeniably cheap, the composition of the shots is consistently good-to-excellent: cinematographer Dick Bush was close to the beginning of his career here, but he’d go on to shoot Sorcerer and Phase IV, among others, and his gift for strong camerawork tailored to his project already shows. Some of the actors–like Patrick Wymark, Linda Hayden, and Tamara Ustinov–have more than enough charisma to anchor their scenes and can even make the most out of a little. Hayden, as cult mastermind Angel, is especially vivid, and she’s good at seeming both venomous and nervy.
And, perhaps most importantly, the horror works. This is one of the foundational texts of folk horror, and it’s notably one of the earliest films that was designed as folk horror. That self-consciousness could spoil it, but it in fact lends the movie a dreamy intensity, as if director Piers Haggard is setting the whole thing in some kind of hazy collective English unconsciousness made up of free-floating symbols. It’s not anchored to the real world, but it has a genuine relationship to its myths. (Which gives it one step up on Midsommar, a better movie in every other way; Midsommar is intentional folk horror without the sincerity.) The Satanic cult, the horror transformations voluntary and involuntary, the rape, the superstition, the madness, the deformed creature buried in the field–the movie could wink at it, but instead, it makes it all feel visceral and present.
And its sincerity doesn’t mean there’s no artfulness here, because the scares are handled well, and in a way that’s thematically and symbolically resonant. Again and again, there’s the sense of interruption, of some orderly rural life disturbed by something wilder. A plow cuts into a dead body, putting an end to neat, straight furrows. Both the cultists and the innocent bystanders alike begin to grow patches of fur on their body, bits of skin that will be flayed off them and reassembled into a demon. Ordinary children’s games spin off into murderous rituals.
I give out a lot of points for the skin detail alone. It’s a kind of squirm-inducing intimacy with the demonic, something that necessitates pain whether the bearer wants anything to do with it or not; it’s a hellish combination of cancer and pregnancy. The physicality of it also works well with the young cultists, like these furry patches of skin stand in for the kind of reckless, sensual decadence they’re pursuing in general. The fur is just one more thing they’ve done with their bodies that their parents know nothing about, a mark of transition that only they know to look for and only they can understand. Kids: you never know what they’re up to.
Unfortunately, The Blood on Satan’s Claw suffers from being almost breathtakingly incoherent. There’s dream logic and then there’s whatever the hell this is. It was apparently originally planned as an anthology film made up of largely unrelated stories–unified vaguely by theme and setting–and then all the stories were mashed together; to say the seams show would be to imply that there actually is something stitching them together, which might be an overstatement. Characters bob in and out of the narrative at random, going mad and being murdered with very little follow-up. (That’s fine; most of them have the same atrocious hair and stilted line deliveries, so in some cases you can’t tell them apart anyway.) Things just sort of happen and then unhappen as the people involved in the events wander off aimlessly in search of the craft services table.
Patrick Wymark’s judge, the one semi-competent non-cultist character, peaces out for London shortly after his girlfriend’s nephew cuts off his own hand, deciding to let the plot play out in his absence. Then he comes back, gravely promising to use “undreamed-of measures” to combat the village’s evil. The undreamed-of measures? Continuing to let the plot play out, basically, because he’s got his eye on the runtime and doesn’t want the film to end too soon: “You must have patience, even while people die. Only thus can the whole evil be destroyed. You must let it grow.” And note, again, that this man is practically a beacon of calm good sense compared to most everyone else.
When the narrative is that fractured and counterintuitive, and when the characters are this hard to get emotionally invested in, the film can’t be good, even if it still reaches greatness via other means. The Blood on Satan’s Claw can’t quite claim that, so it’s stuck with being important–but it is at least important in different ways to different people, not just “important to the genre in general.” However rough it is, however little its technical worth, you can see how someone might love it and even need it.