Musical Avant-Garde and Overt Anachronisms in Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971).
“I think the other thing that appealed to me was the rural setting. The nooks and crannies of woodland, the edges of fields the ploughing, the sense of soil was something I tried to bring into the picture” – Piers Haggard (Gatiss, 2010, BBC).
The Wicker Man is an interesting example to place emphasis on when looking in detail at folk horror. This isn’t so much because the film doesn’t possess the qualities that are required to denote a film as such but because, even if some of its techniques are carried over to other films (including its musical styles), it’s still a relatively unique film with few genuine peers. To address this imbalance, this section will be looking at a more general folk horror film, though its musical tendencies will be shown to be equally as fruitful with analysis.
More importantly though, the musical techniques and styles used in this case study will be shown to transcend more easily into other films of the genre, even films made outside of this era of filmmaking and outside of the popular interests in counter-culture media. While discussing this section’s case study, Newman states the following: “In pitting magistrates, parsons and good-fellow farmers against a coven of children, the film marked out an area of inter-generational tensions that would become central to the American horror films of the 1970s.” (p.31, 2011). This in an accurate summation of this section’s case study and the film will be shown to have psychological relationships and associations because of what its music does, questioning aspects such as instrumentation, anachronisms and tendencies towards the avant-garde.
Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) – Piers Haggard.
Piers Haggard’s venture into folk horror, Blood On Satan’s Claw has several relationships with the two films discussed so far. Its production is quite specifically based on the success of Reeves’ Witchfinder General; made in the wake of the positive commercial result of that film. It also has several production ties with The Wicker Man, though the most important of these will be discussed in due course. What is essentially different though about Haggard’s film is a crucial aspect in understanding its musical aesthetics and narrative eccentricities; unlike Witchfinder General or The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw features the confident, overt presence of the supernatural.
It follows a small rural community in the English countryside during a similar era to that of Witchfinder General. The discovery of the remains of a strange creature while ploughing the land leads to a rising of occultism and the slow rejuvenation of the creature itself by it growing back its skin on the young people of the community. Newman sums the film up thus:
“In one of the few British films explicitly influenced by Reeves, Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw, from 1971, a 17th century farmer comes across a demonic skull while ploughing his field. Evil infects his whole community until a witchfinding judge (played by Patrick Wymark, Cromwell in Witchfinder General) arrives to apply extreme measures to end the malign influence.” (p.50, 2013).
Instead of the belief systems leading simply to evil actions on the part of the human characters, this evil eventually becomes physical and is the first occurrence of an otherworldly force in our case-study films. The film is a product of the interest in reflecting the era’s rebellious youth, an idea which Altman almost accidently stumbles upon in his writings on genre:
“During the 60s and 70s, renewed interest in popular culture and its genres was spurred on by two critical currents. On the one hand, literary structuralism followed the lead of Vladimir Propp and Claude Levi-Strauss in concentrating on folk narratives without any apparent source other than the very audience of those narratives.” (p.26, 1999).
The film has the usual folk horror tropes and makes particular use of the land around it from which the evil springs forth. It has sacrificial ceremonies, the hunting of potential witches, skewed belief systems and a strange mix of diegetic and nondiegetic musical moments.
As we will see, this supernatural addition to the Folk Horror Chain will prove of subtle but vital influence on how the film uses music. This sense of the supernatural is played for real rather than simply as fairytale as Young argues, suggesting that “There is a genuinely malevolent magic at work here; and as in Witchfinder General, it is presented not as fairytale, but as an eruption of terror in a community of working people.” (p.22, 2010). There are several parallels with the musical styles of the two films that bookend it but there is also plenty of highly original moments of scoring which, more so than The Wicker Man, would help define what could be described as a cultural norm in the styles and scoring of folk horror films.
Blood on Satan Claw has a score by Marc Wilkinson and has several interesting aspects to consider. Wilkinson’s history and work is based more on theatrical music with the soundtrack to Blood on Satan’s Claw being only his second film score. His musical style is typified with being overtly English but mixing unusual instrumentation and musical styles to address the themes of each film[i]. Describing this style as English could be problematic without musical analysis but the music’s inherent Englishness in its aural landscape will be looked at further in the following section.
Wilkinson’s success with the score for Blood on Satan’s Claw would lead to a further relationship with folk horror. Indeed, his score is the first of the sub-genre to warrant a soundtrack release. However, this success clearly made an impression on the makers of The Wicker Man who sought Wilkinson’s help and input into Paul Giovanni’s folk songs and score. With this, we can get a sense of what fed into Wilkinson’s music and how that input material eventually came out as a strange, idiosyncratic score; this is a classical realm but with clear links to folk music traditions.
[i] Hence the use of it on his first film score for Lindsay Anderson’s If…. (1968); a quintessential English film about class and the public school system.