Reviewing audio drama is a very new experience for me, but the high quality of Bafflegab Productions’ adaptation of the folk horror classic The Blood on Satan’s Claw has definitely made me want to seek out more.
Folk horror is apparent in periods of time where there is often significant change and the films can appear as anti-authoritarian. The Wicker Man does not sympathise with it’s straight-laced Christian policeman, but revels in the nudity and relative freedom of the Summerisle natives. The same can be said of The Blood on Satan’s Claw in which the Reverend is a figure to be mocked and the young are shown to turn against the authority of their surroundings, propelled by something far more sinister than teenage rebellion. As in later films which share much of the same motifs as these early folk horrors – A Field in England and The Witch – the pleasure in watching comes from some level of engagement with the wicked over the righteous. The real-world is represented as frightening and depressing, whereas the characters influenced by the devil appear to be having a far better time, even if this is short-lived.
It is clear that this production is a labour of love, but also fandom. Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith have made no secret of the influence that films like The Blood on Satan’s Claw have had on their work within The League of Gentlemen. Shearsmith has shown his affinity for folk horror with a star turn in Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, while Gatiss highlighted his appreciation for the sub-genre in his fantastic BBC series on European horror. Their love for the material is clear within the audio drama and you can almost feel the glee with which Shearsmith delivers Reverend Fallowfield’s ‘insolent ungodliness’ line.
The British talent does not end there, with Alice Lowe, Ralph Ineson and John Heffernan lending their voices. Fans of the original film will be thrilled that Linda Hayden has been included in this adaptation, albeit in a smaller role. Rebecca Ryan takes on Hayden’s original character of Angel Blake and provides a captivating presence which drives the drama. There is something incredibly unsettling about the aloofness with which she delivers the lines, frequently employing a sing-song voice to further her distance from other people.
When I originally heard that there was to be an audio adaptation of The Blood on Satan’s Claw, it seemed an odd choice, given that so many of the moments within the film rely heavily on visual elements. The arresting image of a worm resting on an eyeball in a field at the outset is a very clear mission statement of the brutality of the film’s world. The discomfort in watching the patch of ‘Satan’s skin’ be removed from Margaret’s leg is difficult to equal without the accompanying visual, as are the tell-tale patches of fur on other characters. Despite this, fear and pain is tangible within the delivery and one scene involving Thomas Turgoose as Mark Vespers is particularly effective and disturbing. The drama deals with these moments by placing more emphasis on performance, which is easily captured by the talented cast.
As with all audio drama, some of the exposition can be a little distracting, although necessary to fill in the gaps and is a quirk of the medium rather than a failing of the piece. However, the sound design more than makes up for the lack of visuals, packing in plenty of ethereal whispers and crunchy leaves underfoot maintaining a constant sense of where we are during the action. In fact, some of the sound is all the more powerful for not knowing what is creating it until much later on. It has been said that books can often be more frightening because we are forced to fill in the images of what truly scares us and I think the same holds true for audio dramas. While one can obviously draw parallels to the imagery in the film, it is also possible to divert from that into what you find a more effective, personal image.
With a run time of almost 2 and a half hours, there is lots of material here and much of it feels like it has been given ample room to breathe and grow. Shearsmith and Gatiss as Fallowfield and Squire Middleton respectively shine in their interactions with one another. In keeping with folk horror traditions, these exchanges are suitably wordy, quotable and allow for both actors to settle into the material. Their increasingly different ways of wanting to deal with the problem which has befallen them is suitably tense. The role of Ralph Gower is one requiring great emotional range – something which Philip Hill-Pearson handles well.
Arguably the most infamous scene from the film (Cathy Vesper’s fate) is recreated here and the extra time for this allows is to be drawn out in excrutiating detail. Knowing what is to happen to her adds to this suspense, although I’d imagine the unease would be powerful to someone who does not know the scene. Jo Woodcock’s Cathy is suitably vulnerable within the scene which affords it a great deal of power.
The work should be treated with the same respect as you would give a film, although I’d recommend headphones for the full breadth of experience. It is only through focused listening that the depth of the sound design is apparent. The layers of sound allow for complete immersion within the drama and the sounds are often disarming and unsettling. The script works well to create the imagery of a landscape which is dying, full of bones and otherwise dangerous. Mark Morris has clearly taken great care to maintain the tone of the original.
Overall, Bafflegab’s production is a successful adaptation which builds on clear affection for the source material with a suitably hysterical third act. Some subtle differences and concluding additions are a nice surprise and fit nicely within the folk tradition. The cast are invested in the material and the passion for the project is obvious. The investment in quality sound recording adds to an immersive tone and makes it a strong entry into the folk horror genre. Blood on Satan’s Claw will definitely get under your skin and stay there for some time.
Blood on Satan’s Claw is released on CD and download on June 29th and is available to pre-order now from: http://bafflegab.co.uk/