Sunday 30 March 2008

The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971)

Ralph Gower is a ploughman working in 1670s England when he turns up some sort of fiendish corpse in the ground. It's not human but it's ore than animal. When he fetches the local judge to see it, it has mysteriously vanished with only the local curate in sight, chasing his pet snake. Peter Edmonton is of a higher class than a mere ploughman but he plans to marry a farmer's daughter. He brings her home, but bizarre things are happening in the attic. When she sleeps there she goes insane and when he sleeps there he's attacked by some sort of animal. Meanwhile the youths of the village are being gradually converted over to satanism and witchcraft, led by a young lady named Angel Blake.

This is a pretty effective little historical witchcraft chiller. It doesn't just put everything in a black and white context and the fact that we know many of these actors well from non-horror settings helps to ground what has become a highly fantastic genre and it becomes a strong parallel to how we do many things today. It shows how those who follow Satan can make their cause attractive to everyday people and change the way that they think, feel and act. Linda Hayden as Angel Blake is understandably evil, but Margaret, one of her key followers, is played by Michele Dotrice, best known as Betty from Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. Seeing her believable in a witchcraft thriller is what makes this work. How she's handled reflects how many cults operate today.

Much of the rest of the cast were key players in Doctor Who, like most English actors. Reverend Fallowfield, who is set up as a paedophile by Angel Blake, is played by Anthony Ainley, the most famous and well regarded actor to play The Master. The assumption of his guilt and the way it is treated is a close parallel to the witch crazes in Scotland in the 1990s and for much of the blind trust we put in children today. Effectively then and now certain things are seen as so abhorrent that we convince ourselves that the conviction of innocent people is a small price to pay to pretend that a particular evil is being vanquished.

Cathy Vespers, a young girl raped and killed by Angel's gang, is played by Wendy Padbury, best known as Zoe, assistant to the second Doctor. Even seeing her in a film like this shocks the senses, let alone being stripped to be raped. Barry Andrews and Simon Williams also had notable recurring roles on Doctor Who.

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