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I popped this on my Lovefilm list just over a year ago, after Mark Gatiss in his A History of Horror documentary likened it to two of my favourite horror films of all time: Witchfinder General (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973). He dubbed them ‘folk horror’, on the grounds that all three portray worlds of rural magic and superstition, drawing freely on the hippy aesthetic of the late ’60s. I get what he meant and I do see the links between the three films. Blood borrows Witchfinder’s broadly 17th-18th century (it’s a bit hazy) period setting, and its basic focus on a government official (in this case the local Judge) rooting out witchcraft. It also anticipates Wicker in its portrayal of Bacchanalian rituals, including buxom young ladies taking their clothes off and offering themselves to upright religious men. But there are also an awfully large number of ways in which Blood is a very poor relation to the other two.

One very basic difference, from which much else follows, is that neither Witchfinder nor Wicker actually have any supernatural elements in them, whereas Blood does. In Blood, Satan is real, and either he or one of his minions (it’s a bit hazy) is literally infecting the local youth in order to effect his own resurrection. The problem with this is that once you’ve got that basic set-up in place, there isn’t really very much room for anything other than a fairly standard horror story, in which unproblematised evil must be defeated and the village saved.

By contrast, both Witchfinder and Wicker focus instead on human beings' maltreatment of one another, while soundly rejecting standard moralistic narratives about the defeat of supernatural evils. The result is that both stories have far more shades of grey in them than Blood on Satan's Claw can manage, while they also both pull off genuinely bleak and unsettling endings which again a simple good vs. bad story cannot deliver (the young couple at the end of Witchfinder who have ended Matthew Hopkins' reign of terror, but been driven mad by their horrific experiences along the way, and the sight of the deluded villagers in Wicker who are unable to recognise the horror of what they are doing in the name of their religion).

Witchfinder and Wicker also both offer much more effective characterisation along the way - which is also easier to do when your characters are operating in a genuinely morally complex world. Every character in both films comes across as truly alive and with real aims and motivations, and in most cases (Matthew Hopkins perhaps excepted) you can understand and sympathise with those motivations, even if you don't agree with them. Both films feature joyous and / or life-affirming moments, too, like the love affair between the young couple in Witchfinder or the pagan festivities in Wicker, which help to temper and balance out the horrific elements. But sadly, none of this is true for Blood on Satan's Claw. It goes through some of the motions, but its heart isn't really in it.

In other words, if you watch this film hoping for another Witchfinder General or The Wicker Man, you're likely to come away pretty disappointed. And I wish Mark Gatiss hadn't set me up for that, because Blood isn't actually a dreadful film, and I'd probably have enjoyed it a lot more if I hadn't had my hopes raised so much.

It certainly has plenty of welcome faces, including two Doctor Who actors (Anthony Ainley before playing the Master, and here looking for all the world like a proto-Severus Snape, and Wendy Padbury after playing Zoe), two Hammer Dracula veterans (Barry Andrews from Risen from the Grave and Linda Hayden from Taste the Blood) and Simon Williams (yet to become known to millions as James Bellamy from Upstairs Downstairs) in a seriously silly wig. Its basic story of evil briefly thriving before being defeated by the forces of stalwart upper-middle-class rationality has served plenty a horror story well enough for centuries. And it even makes some small attempts at symbolism - e.g. Anthony Ainley's good Reverend first encountered rooting out a snake in the grass; one young villager seen eating an apple just before being lured off to join Satan's forces by his friends; and the Bacchanalian revellers wearing hawthorn crowns as they lead their sacrifices in what I think is meant to be some kind of perversion of Christ's crown of thorns.

In short, then, it's a decent workaday horror film which certainly helps me to understand the wider context of Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man rather better than I did before. But it just isn't really in the same league as either of those films in its own right.

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( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 20th, 2012 09:12 pm (UTC)
I loved Captain Bellamy's shit wig but was sad he couldn't marry the woman he loved - after all demonic possession is enough to put all but the most ardent/deluded suitors off ;-)
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 21st, 2012 12:50 pm (UTC)
Yes, I'm not surprised. It's seriously gratuitous. I think I had intended at one point to include some stuff in this review about how the rape, torture-porn and general misogyny in Blood compare to Witchfinder as well, given that Witchfinder has a lot of similar content. There are probably some interesting things to say about the very different ways they are presented in each film, but I think the point got lost somewhere during the week between me watching Blood and me actually getting around to writing my review of it...
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 21st, 2012 12:59 pm (UTC)
*nods* Yes indeed. Everything about the way the rape scene in Blood is shot and presented explicitly invites the viewer to enjoy it - especially the reactions of the other characters on screen. I found it very uncomfortable viewing for that reason. The context for the violence in Witchfinder puts it in a much clearer moral frame - especially the fact that the characters are much better-developed, so that we empathise much more with the victims.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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