Gordon Hessler, 1970
Starring: Vincent Price, Elizabeth Bergner, Hilary Dwyer, Essy Persson
In Elizabethan England, there is a particularly fearsome magistrate, Lord Whitman, who delights in hunting witches. After torturing an innocent women to get information, Whitman then kills her. He later holds a feast where he forces her two young children to entertain him. When he comes to believe they have been marked by the devil, due to a strange dog or wolf howling outside his castle, he kills them. He vows to destroy all the witches, namely their leader, Oona.
Meanwhile his young wife, who objects to his behavior, is raped by Whitman’s violent son, and begins to go mad. His other son and daughter, Harry and Maureen, return home from school and Maureen carries on an affair with Roderick, a strange young man found in the woods as a child. Some of the locals suspect that Roderick is descended from witches or his one himself. Whitman stumbles across a coven in the woods and slaughters many of them. Enraged, Oona curses him and promises that the sidhe (pronounced “she” and the original of the word “banshee”) has cursed his family. He doesn’t believe her until his relatives begin to die one by one at the hands of some demonic beast.
One of American International Pictures’ British films, I have often seen people describe Cry of the Banshee as a lesser version of Witchfinder General, which isn’t really a fair assessment. Aside from Vincent Price, it bears only one true thing in common with Witchfinder General: cruelty. While both films are essentially exploitation horror movies about witch hunting, in Cry of the Banshee Price is hunting actual witches and satan worshippers, unlike in Witchfinder General, which makes no real reference to the occult and is essentially about a megalomaniac torturing and murdering for political reasons. The way these two films are really similar is in their portrayal of women and the almost constant cruelty. Women are frequently stripped topless, tortured, whipped, killed, etc. There is an unpleasant rape scene and early in the film two children are killed. This might be too mean-spirited for a lot of Vincent Price fans and contains far more blood and nudity than most of his films.
It’s also important to keep in mind that Cry of the Banshee is a British folk horror film, though it is often forgotten about alongside classics of the subgenre. It came out a year before Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and three years before The Wicker Man (1973). Here the witches are real. The group is mostly made up of scantily clad teenagers who look like they are worshipping nature while on many different kinds of drugs, but we soon learn that they are actually satanists. They compel a werewolf to do their bidding and are easily as cruel and depraved as Whitman, making it difficult to find sympathy on either side.
Price is great here as Lord Whitman, playing a slightly campier version of his role as Matthew Hopkins in Witchfinder General. He is a violent, merciless, unsympathetic bastard and yet makes the role likable somehow. Swedish erotica actress Essy Persson (I, A Woman) is good as his tormented young wife and Hilary Heath (Witchfinder General), as his daughter, is probably the most likable character in the film. His sons are played by Carl Rigg (The Holcroft Covenant, Lifeforce) and Stephan Chase (Polanski’s Macbeth), though they are overshadowed by Patrick Mower (The Devil Rides Out) as their sister’s lover, the strange Roderick.
There is some wonderful atmosphere and the film generally splits time between dense forests, a run-down, filthy medieval village, and Whitman’s castle complete with a dank dungeon, torture chambers, feasts, and more. There are wonderful opening credits from Terry Gilliam that feel some what out of place with the serious tone of the film, but are delightful nonetheless. Director Gordon Hessler had previously worked with Price on the Poe-themed voodoo and revenge film The Oblong Box (1969) and the bizarre but enjoyable Scream and Scream Again (1970).
This isn’t a perfect film and suffers from a poorly written script that gets bogged down towards the middle. Dialogue is certainly lacking and Price gets almost none of the wonderfully evil one-liners he typically had during horror films of this period. With that said, the surprise ending is excellent and the level of violence and mystery both kick off about three-fourths of the way through. Fortunately the effects team kept things to a minimum and the film doesn’t suffer from any poorly designed, cheap werewolves or devils. There are a number of effective scenes, including one that transitions between a wild gathering of the coven and a funeral where professional mourners scream and cry because Whitman is too callous to grieve.
As with a number of Vincent Price films from the period, there are references to Edgar Allen Poe in the film’s title and an opening quote (from his poem “The Bells”), but otherwise this has absolutely nothing to do with Poe. There is also no true banshee in the film.
Though Cry of the Banshee isn’t a perfect film by any means, it’s a solid, early entry in British folk horror and is far too neglected. It comes recommended for fans of satanic horror and more mean-spirited exploitation horror. It is available on DVD as a double feature with Murders in the Rue Morgue (directed by Hessler, but not starring Price) from MGM’s Midnite Movies series.