1972’s Blood on Satan’s Claw is part of a folk-horror trifecta that also includes classics such as The Witchfinder General and The Wickerman. While it may not be as well-known today as the other members of this unholy trinity, its commitment to atmospheric, disturbing rural horror has earned it a die-hard fanbase.
We talked to horror author Mark Morris who, along with Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss and original cast member Linda Hayden, has created an audio adaptation of the film.
Tom: Can you describe your first encounter with Blood on Satan’s Claw and how has it influenced your work up to this point?
Mark: I must have been about twelve when I first saw the film, and I vividly remember watching it with my mum. We were living in Huddersfield at the time, so I guess it must have been one of the movies that ITV used to show on their Appointment With Fear slot on Friday nights between 10:30pm-12:00am. The reason I know I watched it with my mum is because I remember being squirmingly embarrassed at Linda Hayden’s full frontal nude scene in the church when she exposes herself to Reverend Fallowfield, played by Anthony Ainley, and utters the immortal line, “Do you like what you see?”
As for its influence on my own work, I guess it feeds into that idea I’ve always had that Britain is an ancient, haunted realm, wreathed in folklore and containing layers and layers of history and mysticism. I don’t particularly believe in ghosts or magic or the power of the occult (though I’d like to), but I nevertheless love the notion of ancient evil being unwittingly unearthed from its centuries-long sleep and spreading its influence throughout an entire community. It’s a theme that recurs a lot in my fiction – not least in my first published novel Toady – though particular works of mine that, it might be argued, have a more direct correlation to the themes and ideas expressed in Blood on Satan’s Claw are my novel Longbarrow.
Tom: Could you comment on the enduring popularity of the story? Do you think its appeal lies in nostalgia or does its message remain relevant?
Mark: Well, first of all, it’s a great movie and very fondly remembered by those who saw it at an impressionable age, and who are active in the genre now – people like myself, Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith. Secondly I feel it touches on common fears that will always be relevant: fear of the unknown; fear of isolation and alienation; and more particularly, in this instance, the fear that the old have of the young. To a certain section of society the young are seen as unruly, unpredictable, violent, cruel, morally bankrupt. Blood on Satan’s Claw taps into that fear, and thus the film, despite its setting, seems forever fresh and shockingly relevant.
Tom: Folk horror is enjoying a bit of a resurgence at the moment. Do you have any thoughts on why interest in the sub-genre has been renewed?
Mark: To be perfectly honest, I don’t think it’s ever really gone away. Although ‘folk horror’ is a bit of a buzz phrase at the moment, there have been many examples of it dotted throughout popular culture in the interim years between the late 60s/early 70s – which spawned movies such as Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General – and more modern folk horror offerings such as The Witch and A Field in England.
Both The Blair Witch Project and the first series of The League of Gentlemen, for instance, are now twenty years old, and so exist pretty much as halfway markers between the so-called ‘golden age’ of folk horror and what many are calling its ‘resurgence’, and in terms of written fiction the likes of Ramsey Campbell, Stephen Gregory, Robert Holdstock, Susan Cooper, Graham Joyce, Alan Garner and others have kept the traditions of this particular ‘sub-genre’, if you want to call it that, alive throughout the last few decades. Even The X-Files, for all its focus on governmental skulduggery and alien infiltration, relied heavily on the trappings of ‘folk horror’ for the majority of its stand-alone stories. If you look hard enough, therefore, I think you’ll find that ‘folk horror’, in its many and varied forms, has always been with us.
Tom: The original Blood on Satan’s Claw is bleak and atmospheric, but also has some very striking visuals (the eyeball in the furrows comes to mind). How did you approach the act of adaptation for audio and were there any particular challenges?
Mark: The movie was originally conceived as a portmanteau film containing three separate stories, and it was only quite late in the process that it was decided to cobble those stories together into one continuous narrative. For that reason, the structure of the story, when you break it down, is full of inconsistencies and loose ends, added to which you have characters who drop out for great chunks of the story and then reappear, and others who only appear late into the story, and then become permanent fixtures.
My first job, therefore, was to pull the story into a more consistent and coherent shape. I did this by rearranging or adding scenes, by linking certain parts of the narrative to other parts they hadn’t been linked to before, by providing logical, or at least believable, explanations for certain events that might at first appear vague or arbitrary, and by beefing up the roles of certain characters, or discarding extraneous characters, or – in the case of the Judge and the Squire, for example – amalgamating two characters into one. It was a careful and painstaking process, and I was mindful as I was doing it of retaining the spirit and basic structure of the original story, of not pulling it too badly out of shape.
Also, as you rightly say, the original movie is a very visual piece – in fact, there are many key scenes in which there is little or no dialogue – and obviously I had to find ways round those problems. The most obvious way to do that on audio, of course, is to have people talking to one another. In the first scene, therefore, when Ralph’s plough uncovers part of the face of the ‘fiend’ in the field, I gave him Cathy to interact with, whereas in the original film he’s alone. Such solutions often have an added advantage, of course, in that they help to better establish and consolidate certain relationships between the characters. Here, for example, it’s obvious from the beginning that Ralph and Cathy fancy one another, whereas in the movie that relationship becomes almost incidental, because by the time it’s mentioned the devilry has already become very much established, and is taking centre stage.
So yes, the short answer to your question is to increase the amount of dialogue and also to use lots of creepy sound effects – wind, the cawing of crows, the rustling of trees and bushes etc.
Tom: Are there any other classic or modern horror films that you feel would be ideal for this type of adaptation?
Mark: I’m sure there are many. Purely for personal reasons, because they’re particular favourites of mine, I’d love to have a go at Hammer’s The Reptile. The problem, of course, would be getting the rights to do them.
Tom: The adaptation features a stellar cast, many of whom have long-standing relationships with the source material. Can you provide any insight into how they were assembled?
Mark: It all started with Mark Gatiss. Mark and I have been friends for many years, and he expressed an interest in being involved with the project from the beginning. As soon as Mark officially confirmed he was on board, Simon Barnard, who owns and runs Bafflegab Productions, and was producer and director on this, found that pretty much every actor he invited to join the cast said yes – because everyone wants to work with Mark. Even so, I was stunned by the calibre of actors we managed to attract, and also by their sheer commitment and energy during the recording. Not only did every single one of them knock it out of the park, but they were all great people, really lovely to work with. In stark contrast to the grimness and horror of the drama itself, the two days we spent in studio were very happy ones, full of chat and laughter.
Tom: Lastly, are there any other upcoming projects that you are able to talk about?
Mark: I’m currently putting the finishing touches to New Fears 2, a horror anthology I’m editing for Titan Books, which will be out in September, and is the sequel to the hugely successful New Fears that came out last year.
Also out in September is The Dispossessed, a Doctor Who audio drama for Big Finish Productions starring Sylvester McCoy as the 7th Doctor, and Sophie Aldred and Bonnie Langford as his companions, Ace and Mel. Aside from that, I’m co-writing a YA horror novel with friend and fellow author Tim Lebbon, and am about to start work on a new novel of my own. Later in the year I’ll be writing a non-fiction book about the horror movie Sinister for the Midnight Movie Monographs series published by PS Publishing. I also have a commissioned novella and several short stories to write, so I’ve got enough to keep me off the streets for a while yet.
Don’t forget to check out Blood on Satan’s Claw on Audible!