There are at least two iconic images from the British horror cinema of the ‘70s featuring Linda Hayden. The first is from The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1970) in which Hayden, clad in a long angelic white robe, stands in misty woodland with a crown of thorns on her head, staring menacingly from beneath sinister (and very bushy) angled eyebrows. The second is from Exposé (1976) and shows Hayden pointing a double-barrelled shotgun towards the screen, ferocious eyes smudged with dramatic dark make-up, corn waving in the breeze behind.
Hayden’s career got off to something of a flying start and, briefly, there was a hint she might become the next big thing in British cinema. Alas, the promise of bigger and better things just never quite materialised for her on an acting level.
Her breakthrough came just as British cinema in general was entering its leanest period. This was a time when even established and revered character actors like Joan Hickson, John Le Mesurier, Bill Maynard, Roy Kinnear and John Standing were finding it difficult to find much work and, consequently, were accepting roles in cheap and raunchy sex comedies just to secure continuous employment. A select few British stars had assailed Hollywood (such as Sean Connery, Alec Guinness, Richard Burton, Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier, et al) and could still handpick roles in prestigious and dignified movies. The likes of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee held a fairly unique position as the first choices when well-publicised horror movies were being cast. Then there was a ‘second tier’ of British talent, not quite superstars at the time but certainly semi-stars – Glenda Jackson, Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Oliver Reed, Ian Holm, Roger Moore, Diana Rigg and co. – whose talents were coveted enough to keep them out of the sex ‘n’ smut genre.
It was in the midst of this cinematic landscape that Hayden found herself at the start of her career. Her very first film role was in Alastair Read’s Baby Love (1968), charting the problems that occur when a well-off suburban family ‘take in’ a wantonly sexual teenage tearaway following her mother’s suicide. The film was – and remains – a controversial adult-themed domestic drama, quite unrelated to the horror genre (meaning it merits no further discussion here). It did, however, announce the arrival of Hayden in rather stark and startling terms, sparking a sudden demand for her talents in the years that followed.
A striking aspect of Hayden’s subsequent filmography is that she rarely, if ever, played sickly sweet or wholly sympathetic types. Most of her horror roles are characterised by a ‘dark side’; sometimes a sense of ambivalence, sometimes a cruel edge. Her characters range from temporarily misguided (Taste The Blood Of Dracula) to morally ambiguous (Exposé) to downright evil (The Blood On Satan’s Claw).
Her first horror role was in Taste The Blood Of Dracula (1969) as Alice Hargood, daughter of William Hargood (Geoffrey Keen), who is one-third of a trio of thrill-seeking Victorian gentlemen. The three hedonists get involved in a black mass masterminded by Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates), during which Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) is again resurrected after being bumped off in an earlier film.
Alice is hypnotised by Dracula and becomes his unwitting servant, tricking victims to his lair where the usual nasty fate awaits. Whilst under Dracula’s spell, her atrocities include killing her own father with a shovel and luring Lucy, the daughter of her father’s friend, to an abandoned church to be vampirised. By the end of the film, though, she is spared the same fate as the others when Lucy’s brother Paul (Anthony Higgins) rescues her in the nick of time, realising that she is not actually evil but is in fact under some sort of wicked spell.
The role of Alice is the most interesting female character in the film thanks to her transformation into, and back from, an instrument of Dracula’s evil plan. Hayden is very good in the role, holding her own amongst some pretty illustrious company and creating a character who sticks in the memory of the viewer.
This was followed by what is arguably Hayden’s strongest contribution to the genre, The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1970). By ‘strongest contribution’, I mean it is both the strongest horror film in which she starred, and the one where she gives her strongest performance. The film is one of those short-lived ‘folk horror’ entries briefly courted by British horror makers of the time (Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man being other notable examples). It makes for an evocatively eerie and spine-chilling experience, not to mention a film which still has the ability to shock and disturb almost forty five years on.
The film is set in 17th century England, where a demonic one-eyed skull is unearthed in a field. Soon after, the local youngsters begin to sprout weird growths of fur and act strangely, as if under the guidance of some dark and malevolent power. The local judge (Patrick Wymark) initially rejects fears that an evil presence is abroad, but after further investigation he discovers that a satanic foe has been awakened and rides into battle against it.
Hayden plays Angel Blake, a possessed local lass who manipulates events throughout the film. Wherever some appalling event is taking place she is never far away, looking on with her sinister and spine-tingling stare. There are many good performances in this low-budget minor classic, with Wymark, Barry Andrews, Michele Dotrice, Tamara Ustinov, Wendy Padbury and Anthony Ainley all making a strong impression. But it is Hayden who leaves the longest-lasting mark of all, playing a character with an unnerving appearance who oversees the foulest of deeds; she makes one uneasy every time she is on screen. It is her finest hour in the horror genre, as well as a fabulously atmospheric bloodcurdler in its own right. Few would argue that Tigon Productions ever made a better film during their short existence.
This would have been the ideal point for Hayden to be blessed with that elusive stroke of luck which often makes or breaks an actor’s career. She needed to find herself ‘in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time’, so to speak. Perhaps a call from Sam Peckinpah to play the female lead in Straw Dogs (she was possibly a couple of years too young – or, at least, too young-looking – to be quite right for that role). Or a nice note from the James Bond people inviting her to play the main Bond girl in Live And Let Die or The Man With The Golden Gun. Unfortunately for Hayden, none of these offers materialised and her career began to peter out almost as quickly as it had taken off.
She did secure a further substantial role before the bubble really burst, albeit in a film which almost no-one saw. Something To Hide (1972) – known also as Shattered – showcases Hayden as a psychotic hitch-hiker opposite acting heavyweights Peter Finch and Shelley Winters. It’s debatable whether this should be placed in the horror bracket – it’s more of a protracted suspense drama, a psychological thriller which plays guessing games with the audience throughout. It certainly isn’t a full-on horror entry, and is nowadays an extremely obscure film which hasn’t surfaced on TV for many moons. Hayden and Finch were praised for their performances – and a small band of hardy fans still express support for the film in online forums and on the Internet Movie Database – but overall it was seen by few people when released and even fewer after that.
Around this time Hayden’s roles – or certainly her horror roles – seemed to become increasingly insubstantial. In the suspense thriller Night Watch (1973) she was merely billed as “girl in car” which sounds like the sort of uncredited bit-part most actors accept in the very early stages of their career in an effort to get noticed. It certainly isn’t the sort of part one would expect from an already-established name.
In Old Dracula (1974) – aka Vampira – she plays Helga, a glamorous tour worker in Dracula’s castle. This Carry On-style horror spoof finds Dracula (David Niven) welcoming a party of unsuspecting Playboy models to his castle, hoping that one of them might carry the remarkably rare blood group required to revive his comatose wife. One of the models does indeed have the elusive blood-type, but a mix-up occurs and the blood he ends up using for the transfusion turns his wife turn black. The inevitable racial jokes and stereotypes follow, plus a desperate trip to London to track down the Playboy models and correct the genetic error.
No-one tries very hard in the film – most of the performances are lazily handled by bored-looking actors. Niven wears a slightly bemused expression throughout but still manages to raise a few smiles with his effortless charisma, while Peter Bayliss gets all the best moments as Dracula’s loyal but inept manservant Maltravers. The rest of the actors are wasted in nothing roles, including Nicky Henson, Jennie Linden, Bernard Bresslaw, Veronica Carlson and Hayden. Hayden’s appearance weighs in at less than five minutes and even the phrase ‘supporting role’ is too grand for it. ‘Peripheral’ would be a more apt description.
She doesn’t get much longer to make her mark in Madhouse (1974). This one unites horror titans Vincent Price and Peter Cushing and tells of Hollywood legend Paul Toombes (Price), famous for creating the on-screen character Doctor Death in a series of phenomenally successful movies. People start being murdered by methods used in the movies, and all the evidence points to Toombes as the culprit. He goes into self-imposed exile for many years until he’s persuaded to make a comeback as Doctor Death by his script-writing friend Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing). Almost as soon as Toombes returns to the spotlight, the murders start up again… reigniting old suspicions about his guilt.
Hayden plays an aspiring young actress who tries to seduce Price during a boat trip to England. She pursues him to Cushing’s secluded country manor, where someone promptly shoves a pitch-fork through her neck, bringing her participation in the film to a premature end. Natasha Pyne has a more substantial role as a young lady instructed by the production company to keep tabs on Price during his stay in England. There’s no reason why Hayden could not have played this larger and more meaningful role, but instead – as in Old Dracula – she is wasted in a glorified bit-part.
Very obscure – but at least meatier from Hayden’s acting point of view – is the giallo-inspired Barcelona Kill (1974), in which she plays a freelance photographer helping her fiancé, a newspaper journalist, track down the twin sister of a woman whose murder they witnessed. There’s action, corruption, gore, nudity, teenage slavery and plenty of other staple ingredients of Euro-exploitation, but the film remains clumsy, amateurish and utterly unworthy of seeking out.
Hayden began to do more TV work around this time, and drifted into a number of soft-score sex farces, sometimes with her then-boyfriend Robin Askwith. There was, however, one final big role for Hayden in the genre… and, moreover, one which would cause quite a stir with the censors. The film was Exposé (1976), a notably violent and sexually explicit offering co-starring Udo Kier and Fiona Richmond.
While the film itself is not exactly glowing cinema, it does see Hayden giving her strongest performance since The Blood On Satan’s Claw as a private secretary helping novelist Paul Martin (Kier) compile his second manuscript. Paul’s girlfriend Suzanne (Fiona Richmond) is also present in the secluded cottage where the manuscript is being finalised. During the course of the film Paul suffers from a series of bloody nightmares; Hayden masturbates over a mysterious photograph she carries around in her personal belongings; some local thugs attempt to rape Hayden in a neighbouring field and get shot by her for their troubles; and Richmond… well, Richmond gets naked a lot, and seems to be in the film purely because of her mystifying reputation as British cinema’s favourite sex siren of the era.
Things come to a head in a bloody climax during which the truth about Hayden’s character is finally revealed. It’s an OK twist, and Hayden is pretty good as the rather unhinged leading lady. It’s a performance which should have put her back in demand, but the film was marketed more as a Fiona Richmond sex vehicle than a psychological horror film. It ran into problems with the censors for it lurid mix of lesbianism, rape and violence – and its notoriety was further sealed when it became the only British film to appear on the infamous DPP list (39 films which were officially banned some years later by the BBFC during the video nasties furore).
Hayden really distanced herself from the film in the years after its release, making numerous claims about her unhappiness over how it turned out. This open displeasure toward the film may or may not have contributed to her decline as a horror star, but it certainly didn’t help. Regardless of the film’s strengths and weaknesses as a piece of cinema it did momentarily reaffirm Hayden’s place in the genre, but it was a return to form she was either unable or unwilling to capitalise upon.
What followed was a brief role as the Singing Nun in Queen Kong (1976), often regarded as one of the worst movies ever made, and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part in The Boys From Brazil (1978) as a lodger who becomes the murder victim of a neo-Nazi conspirator. Lying unceremoniously strangled on a bed, Hayden’s contribution to horror and exploitation cinema pretty much ended there.
There was a role in a Hammer House Of Mystery & Suspense episode entitled Black Carrion in 1984, but her post-70s career generally consisted of occasional guest appearances in TV shows like Hart To Hart, Minder, The Upper Hand and The Bill.
She did, surprisingly, agree to appear in Stalker (2010), a remake of Exposé with Jane March assuming Hayden’s role from the original. Hayden’s part as Mrs Brown is brief in Martin Kemp’s bloody latter-day horror flick, and she is killed off with a claw hammer in the early stages. The Bill and Eastenders bad-lad Billy Murray is gruesomely garrotted in a horribly graphic scene later on, but overall the film is an uninspired retread of its more infamous predecessor.
It’s a shame her horror and exploitation output tailed off as it did, though Hayden’s private life went from strength to strength, marrying long-term boyfriend and theatre bigwig Paul Elliott in 1987. (Unlike many celebrity couples they’re still together now, and are blessed with two grown-up kids).
While her dalliance with the horror genre might not have ended on a high, it certainly began on one. For her unnerving portrayal of Angel Blake in The Blood On Satan’s Claw (and, to a lesser but still worthy extent, her work in Taste The Blood Of Dracula and Exposé) she fully deserves her place in the pantheon of glamorous horror mistresses, alongside Veronica Carlson, Martine Beswick, Julie Ege, Caroline Munro, Valerie Leon, Madeline Smith and the rest.