When I was eight years old I set out to write a “Modern Opera” set in Chicago gangland, my opus one. I would transmit it on my radio station, which consisted of a standard lamp behind the sofa in the living room. I began to sketch a libretto and some songs, but did not get far with it. The story and the idea were good, though, and the theme, which was the conflict between love and gang loyalty. I wrote all this the year before “West Side Story” appeared on Broadway.
In the room at that time there stood a three foot high paper model of Salisbury Cathedral. A visit to the cathedral at the age of six had been a revelation for me and had decided what I wanted to do in life. I wanted to create such a cathedral, a magical space from which people could draw what they liked in the way of inspiration and refreshment, a delight to all the senses and an environment in which miracles can happen.
Son et Lumiere was then all the rage, and I was experimenting with shining torches on falling sycamore seeds. Together with my friend next door, I made a paper model of the Houses of Parliament to tell the story of the gunpowder plot, with music and drama. It is said that one starts in life already knowing in some way where your life is taking you. For me it was music and drama in an architectural backdrop. Films helped me make it part of the way, but the voyage of discovery continues.
“BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW or THE DEVIL’S SKIN”
Looked at from the perspective of the present day, the story of “The Devil’s Skin” (aka “Blood on Satan’s Claw”) has something of a strange fairy-tale aspect to it. I was 22 and had just ended my previous job prior to Christmas. I had sent out the obligatory hundred applications and had met a blank wall. Then, on the morning of January 1st 1970, a letter appeared on the doorstep. In those days New Year’s Day was still a working day. The letter was from a young film company called Chilton Films who had made a very good deal with Pinewood Studios to shoot a horror film there, starting on April 1st. They had 30 scripts submitted from various agents but were not really happy with any of them, so I was welcome to send them an idea, if I had one. I immediately rang them up and told them I had an idea which I hoped would fit the bill. It was a complete lie, but I did not want to let the opportunity pass by. They said “Fine, but they were in a hurry. Could I get something to them by next Tuesday?” (then five days away). I said I could.
Fortunately I had taken to writing ghost stories when I was at school, which I would read to the other pupils, and they had always been very popular, which gave me confidence. I had made a collection which I called “Legends of Torment of Body and Soul” and could draw on these. But in the end I came up with a totally new idea which I presented to them on the following Tuesday. All went well, but there was a catch. There was a recent vogue for “portmanteau” films, in which several short films were put together to form one feature. The producers had become enamoured of this idea, and I was told they did not need just one idea, but three. I said “OK”. I was just so amazed that they seemed to assume that I would be the writer of all three. It was at this point that “Legends of Torment” saved me. I was able to plunder ideas from there and come up with three films in a very short time. I was then summoned to see an executive of Tigon British, the parent company with which Chilton was working. With his tongue firmly in his cheek he told me that I would have to get through at least a gallon of “Kensington Gore” (stage blood) and that the audience should never be left too long before a naked girl appeared, and that allowance should be made for all this in the script. I think he was concerned that my approach might be too intellectual.
I wrote the first draft screenplay in three weeks. My flatmate, who was not himself over-fond of work, reacted as if I had caught some awful disease when he saw me typing round the clock. He would bring me cups of tea and ask if I was alright. I was sad to lose the full length feature, as I did not much care for portmanteaux, so I was careful to interlink the stories with overlapping characters so they could be made into a continuous film. The result was more like a film with episodes, “The Hand”, “The Claw” and “The Devil’s Skin”. I was delighted when they saw my point of view, and asked for a full length feature film after all.
Assembling the three separate stories into a continuous seamless whole proved more difficult than I had imagined. And there was another problem. Having at one time been steeped in the stories of such writers as Conan Doyle, Algernon Blackwood and M.R.James, I had set the film in Victorian times. The Judge in the story was going to arrive on an impressive steam train. However, Tigon had just had a great success with a historical film, “Witchfinder General”, set in the Cromwellian period, and they had fallen in love with the 17th century and its witches, and they wanted the film to be moved to that period. Witchfinder ha already played a part in allowing me to bring the action out of the studio into the countryside. I was happy with all this, but the alterations meant a great deal of work, and April Fool’s Day was looming. In Hollywood they would have employed a whole team of writers to make the changes.
It was at this point, while I was coping with all the changes, that the producers hired a designated director for the film. In retrospect it was an extraordinary choice which they made, but an inspired one. Piers Haggard was just over five years my senior and still in his twenties. Neither he nor I had ever made a horror film before. Coming as he did from the Royal Court Theatre and the BBC, Piers brought in actors who were committed to creating real rounded characters, and a technical team of the highest quality. He also hand a strong feeling for the countryside which was such an important player in the drama. It was apparent to us all that this was not going to be just a horror film like any other.
But one problem remained, and that was that we were running out of time. There was now a script which worked, but there was no space for fine-tuning it. Actors were being hired on contracts which limited the time that they would work on the film, so any alterations to their parts became impossible. Things were being set in stone a little before they were fully ready. The last traces of the three part structure could not be entirely removed before shooting began. At the time this did not bother anyone. The film was full of action, and it held its audience no matter what. The producers were mainly concerned with the title, which went through an enormous number of changes before “Blood on Satan’s Claw” was arrived at. “The Devil’s Skin” became “The Devil’s Touch” and then “Satan’s Skin” and so on. The Americans preferred to call it “The Claw”. Nobody imagined that the film would still be more popular than ever fifty years on.