Sunday, 16 September 2012

Celluloid Sounds - The Blood on Satan's Claw (1970)

From a purely personal perspective, the Tigon production of The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970) represents the pinnacle of the British horror film. Of course an objectively dispassionate and critical eye is able to discern a myriad of plot deficiencies and narrative weaknesses, and one or two performances diminish the overall effect, but for me this is an insidiously perverse, eerie, and troubling piece of work, which evocatively renders the fears and superstitions of a rural 17th century community. In addition to its censor baiting visuals, and its various concessions to generic cinema, it is also a beautiful film about the English countryside. It is incredibly earthy, overflows with a rich autumnal palette, and possesses such a sense of pastoral isolation that at times the narrative takes on the mythical persona of a folk tale. The gorgeous Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire countryside was strikingly shot by cinematographer Dick Bush, and the natural lighting brings an exquisite rustic charm to its tale of a village’s children succumbing to the influence of Satan. Like the best examples of film art The Blood on Satan’s Claw works on an allegorical level, and its dramatic clash between a group of children realising and celebrating their freedom and sexuality, and the forces of patriarchal adulthood that seek to contain it offers a prescient message for the age of permissiveness.

For all of its venerable qualities though, the most distinctive aspect of the film is the soundtrack which was composed by Australian Marc Wilkinson. Wilkinson’s only notable film credit prior to The Blood on Satan’s Claw was for Lindsey Anderson’s remarkable and surreal If… (1968), and his later film and television career was fairly undistinguished; though genre fans can enjoy more of his music via The Quatermass Conclusion (1979), the Visitor from the Grave episode of Hammer House of Horror (1980), and several episodes of Tales of the Unexpected (1981-88). Wilkinson cut his teeth in the world of theatre; for a short period he was musical director of the Royal Shakespeare Company - but his most notable appointment was as the musical director of Royal National Theatre, a position he held between 1963 and 1974, concurrent with his work on The Blood on Satan’s Claw. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest his music for this cult horror film is among the finest ever composed for a British horror film. Wilkinson brings with him the discipline of the stage, and a background in avant-garde experimentation, the result of which is uniquely weird and spine chilling.

The distinctive sound was derived through Wilkinson’s use of the unconventional Ondes Martenot and the equally unusual Cimbalom. The former is one of the world’s earliest electronic instruments; it was invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot, and its unnatural wavering quality bears striking similarity to the Theremin. The latter is a hammered dulcimer and was popularised in Hungary and Central Eastern Europe. The use of these instruments within the sonic framework of a conventional orchestral sound is what gives the score its peculiar and uncanny flavour. The sounds provide a leitmotif for diabolic events, but are arranged in such a manner as to evoke the rich idyllic landscapes and folk traditions of this benighted rural clime. It is something of a travesty that Wilkinson’s groundbreaking score remained unreleased until October 2007, when it was finally distributed for discerning ears by Trunk Records on CD and limited edition vinyl. I now invite you to sit back, turn the volume up on your sound system (my personal preference is to listen with headphones) and let the devil into your drawing room or study.


  1. Jennifer Croissant17 September 2012 at 04:02

    I remember being genuinely appalled and horrified by this film when it was first shown on British TV in 1978, even to this day its still pretty nauseating.

  2. I first saw it on British TV as well Jennifer, it would have been some time in the early 1990's I'd say. I guess if you were horrified, then it did its job as a horror film very well. It made a deep and lasting impression on me, and the music had a large amount to do with that. I'll never forget the primal impact that opening scene had, when the farmer discovers the skull in his field.

  3. A fantastic entry to mark the return of one of my favorite by ways of The Highway, Celluloid Sounds! Rest assured, amigo, I've been listening to these tracks for over a week now! Great research. This goes on the list. And keep 'em coming!


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