Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Movie: Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)

Everyone knows what travels fastest across a schoolyard: cooties. Unless it’s a Catholic schoolyard, when it’s freaky rumors about Beelzebub.

“You can totally see the Devil’s hand!”


“Yeah-huh! And it’s actually a claw, like in the title!”

My Queens schoolyard was alive with such talk years ago after Blood on Satan’s Claw turned up on a late night horror show. One of the older kids saw it, and his description of its grotesqueries was so vivid that the next time it surfaced, I concocted a reason to be up to watch. Here’s all I remember:

1. The devil’s hand. You really can see it. And it is a claw.

2. Patches of dark hair spontaneous growing on the backs and legs of young women marked by Lucifer.

When Blood turned up on Turner Classic Movies a few weeks ago, I made sure to record it. Time to see if it matched those childhood memories.

It didn’t. It was actually much scarier.

The simple story goes a long way toward the movie’s effectiveness. An English farmer plowing a field unearths a demon’s skeleton. Some children steal the bones. Soon they form a cult, sacrificing the classmates who are growing the devil’s skin (the film’s alternate title) on their bodies.

My first thought on watching it this time: this movie would never be made today. Children not only in harm’s way but serving as the agents of destruction. As it happens, demonically possessed kids don’t act that differently from normal ones.

My second thought: I missed the sexual subtext completely back in the day. Clumps of dark hair erupting on the milky white flesh of pubescent girls? Right over my head. (Please bear in mind, as mentioned above, that I was in Catholic school at the time.)

Co-writer/director Piers Haggard would later helm the BBC Pennies from Heaven. (BONUS: He’s also the grandson of famed adventure writer H. Rider Haggard.) From the opening frames he quickly establishes that this story takes place in a far different era, when life was brief, cruel, and expected to end badly. The one authority figure who is on the side of right still comes across as imperious, less concerned about the lives of the peasants than how the presence of a demon would affect his travel plans.

TCM aired the film unedited – including a few shots I know I didn’t see when I was a child – at 2AM Eastern, because it still packs that much of a punch. If a few kids were up late enough to watch, I have no doubt their reports drifted into every corner of schoolyards the following Monday like a chill wind, drawing the unsuspecting near. Which is how it ought to be.

Miscellaneous: Link

Director Whit Stillman names five must-read film books.