Although dressed up by its US distributors American International Pictures as a successor to their classic Roger Corman directed Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, Cry Of The Banshee - horror legend Vincent Price’s first seventies role – sees the legendary horror star more or less reprising the sadistic witch finder role he had perfected two years earlier in Michael Reeves’ British horror classic Witchfinder General (1968). Directed by the underrated Gordon Hessler – perhaps best known for directing messrs Price, Cushing and Lee in the cult favourite Scream And Scream Again (1969) - Cry Of The Banshee represents a partial reprisal of the depraved witch hunter angle of Witchfinder General, with a tip of the hat to the rich gothic styling's of the Corman/Poe cycle and replete with a rather novel narrative slant of its own.
Cry Of The Banshee takes place in an unnamed rural district of medieval England. With witch hunting hysteria in full sway sadistic, evil-natured magistrate Lord Edward Whitman (played by Price) – together with his family – rule over the area with a malevolent iron fist with Lord Edward using the false charge of witchcraft to justify the torture, debasement and murder of the local peasantry, which is carried out principally by his wicked son Sean and his sadistic henchman Bully Boy.
Fear falls upon the region when local farmers begin losing livestock to a mad dog which is running wild and killing at will to satiate its crazed hunger. With superstition at fever pitch, the locals convince themselves that the hound is the product of some sort of witchery and look to Lord Edward to come up with an answer to the problem. Lord Edward soon finds scapegoats in the form of the aged sorceress Oona and her paganistic coven who are self-professed practitioners of the old religion. Lord Edward promptly supervises the massacre of most of Oona’s coven but deliberately spares Oona herself who along with her few remaining followers is banished into the wilds.
Little does Lord Edward realise that in crossing Oona he is incurring the wrath of a powerful and vengeful sorceress. Enraged by Lord Edwards’s treatment of her people Oona uses her sorcery to summon an “avenger” who she can command to destroy the Whitman family at will. This avenger arrives in the form of handsome but mysterious stranger Roderick (played by Patrick Mower) who by the agency of Oona’s black magic transforms by night into a ferocious wolf-like beast. The human Roderick soon begins a torrid love affair with Lord Edwards daughter Maureen (played by Price's Witchfinder General co-star Hilary Dwyer), giving him a prime opportunity to infiltrate the Whitman household, and as Oona continues to work her dark magic Roderick transforms into beast form, picking off the Whitman’s one by one.
Whatever merits Cry Of The Banshee possesses, truthful advertising is not – strictly speaking – one of them. Despite its rather misleading title there is not a banshee in sight with the dolling out of death being done by Patrick Mower’s werewolf-like “avenger” Roderick, his arrival heralded by a banshee-like cry. hence the films title. The films reputation has not been aided down the years either by the butchery performed on Hessler’s original UK cut for the US market. Fairly strong in terms of both nudity and violence for a film of its time, Cry Of The Banshee was therefore savagely slashed of approximately six minutes of footage for its original US theatrical release, in order to ensure a more box-office friendly GP rating. These cuts not only shorn the film of its juiciest highlights but also rendered the slowly unravelling narrative more or less incomprehensible. This hatchet job was also re scored by AIP's resident composer in chief Les Baxter, replacing the more effective original score by Wilfred Joseph. As if this were not bad enough the truncated US version would also replace the films superb and highly memorable animated opening credits - created by Terry Gilliam - with bland stills. Unfortunately Cry Of The Banshee would languish in this truncated, tampered form for years, before being finally restored to its original form for the films 2003 debut on DVD.
While Cry Of The Banshee bases its commercial foundations upon recycled, tried and tested British horror genre formulas and motifs, Hessler (in the films original cut at least) manages to successfully pull off an unexpected and novel spin on the “witch finder” formula with the always dependable Price playing a role pitched somewhere roughly between the wicked decadence of his Prince Prospero in the classic Poe adaptation The Masque Of The Red Death (1964) and his portrayal of chief witch finder Matthew Hopkins in Witchfinder General (1968) with added overtones of the sadistic, domineering patriarch. The result is an involving and stylish if at times somewhat convoluted British horror film stylistically pitched halfway between the tone of AIP’s Corman/Poe adaptations and the more deliberately lurid gothic horrors synonymous with Hammer and Tigon.
Set in a stereotypical medieval England where lynch mobs flog witches through the streets, there is much superstitious jabbering about evil spirits and the peasants really are revolting, Cry Of The Banshee benefits from a strongly realised sense of the rampant superstition, all prevailing grime and persecutory horrors of the time, lending the film an underlying sense of period authenticity that few other British horrors of its era so successfully realise. In addition Cry Of The Banshee is fairly strong on the sadistic torture and gratuitous nudity front – for its era at least – especially in its first half hour, as leering males salaciously tear away bodices to ravish the bosoms of unwilling females and unfortunate wenches accused of witchcraft are branded, stripped and flogged.
From a narrative perspective Cry Of The Banshee is somewhat of a mixed bag. While the film establishes a strong sense of period mood and flavour in its first half, it is hamstrung to a degree by a lack of narrative direction as Cry Of The Banshee serves up but hesitates in establishing a perhaps excessive number of protagonists while the plot makes a longwinded job of finding it feet amidst a hefty dollop of gratuitous nastiness and a subplot concerning a rampaging mad dog (which in fairness is eventually integrated quite cleverly into the plot). However, with Lord Edward’s persecution of Oona and her subsequent quest for vengeance Cry Of The Banshee finally gains some much needed sense of narrative focus and does a good job of fleshing out its principal protagonists as a nicely realised conflict arises in the Whitman family, with Lord Edwards wife Lady Patricia and son Harry openly opposing his needless cruelty.
More importantly Hessler generates an effective air of impending doom as the Whitman’s are picked off by the bestial Roderick. Wolf howls and banshee-like cries raise jitters and the attack sequences are universally well executed. In order to get around the sticking point of make-up limitations Roderick’s beastly alter-ego is wisely kept off screen, his presence conveyed via clever, evocative use of shadow. This adds a welcome air of creepily understated subtlety, making for an effective and startling contrast with the gory lacerations that accompany Roderick’s claw-swiping onslaughts. This eventually leads to an excellent, blackly comic twist ending which for my money ranks as one of the best, unexpected denouements the British horror cannon has to offer.
Cry Of The Banshee also benefits from some largely decent performances. In all fairness Vincent Price seems as if he is going through the motions to a certain extent, delivering a more subdued and less deliberately OTT performance than usual. In terms of sheer screen presence however, Price is as commanding as ever and brilliantly conveys Lord Edwards growing terror as he comes to realise that the sorcery he never really believed in and used as an excuse to justify his depraved cruelty is actually very real and is now snapping at the backs of his and his families heels. In particular Price’s horrified facial expression at the films conclusion as he realises the true identity of his runaway carriages driver is truly priceless. Price also receives capable support from Patrick Mower who delivers a good performance as the bewitched Roderick who finds himself torn between the compulsion to carry out Oona’s bidding and his love for Maureen who is also played well by Price’s fellow Witchfinder General returnee Hilary Dwyer. Carl Rigg also makes a strong impression as Lord Edward’s conscientious son Harry, whose eventual reluctant, semi-intentional compliance with his father’s wickedness ultimately seals his doom. In the acting stakes Cry Of The Banshee is only let down by veteran German actress Elisabeth Bergner’s dreadful performance as the vindictive sorceress Oona. A star of the silent era but woefully miscast here, Bergner’s stagy, comically OTT delivery renders all of the coven and incantation scenes an unintentionally hilarious farce which undermines the films tension somewhat. Many familiar faces from British stage and screen are also to be found if one looks hard enough, including Hugh Griffith, Sally Geeson, Michael Elphick and a young Stephen Rea (in his acting debut) although – with the exception of Griffith – none make anything more than a fleeting appearance.
Despite not having an actual banshee in sight, Cry Of The Banshee registers as a modestly effective and enjoyable effort from AIP. An unusual cross-pollination between Witchfinder General style witch-hunt melodrama and a curious spin on the gothic werewolf film, Cry Of The Banshee often feels like two very different films tenuously linked together. Yet credit to Hessler where it is due for against the odds delivering something more than the by the numbers Witchfinder General rip-off one might expect. In actual fact Cry Of The Banshee is a hard film to categorize (should one feel the need). The only likeness I could suggest would be that with its emphasis on Hammer-esque gothic horror and Mowers love torn man beast protagonist, Cry Of The Banshee bears a passing, unintentional resemblance to Spanish horror icon Paul Naschy’s numerous Waldemar Daninsky werewolf saga's, only filtered through British genre sensibilities.
Yet in fairness Cry Of The Banshee is a very satisfying, underrated British horror effort in its own right, which has been sadly overlooked over the years, no doubt due to the terrible, truncated version in which it was originally foisted onto American audiences. While the narrative sometimes feels a little disjointed and the characterisation is sometimes sub par, overall Hessler succeeds in melding together elements of two radically different subgenre's into a novel and largely cohesive whole that, while far from perfect, still manages to impress thanks to the dependability of Price and some creepy overtures of impending, bestial doom which is in turn boosted a great deal by a painstaking earthy, warts and all eye for grim period authenticity.
All in all Cry Of The Banshee is a film that I find myself enjoying a little more with each repeat viewing and as such I would certainly class it as an underrated and worthwhile addition to the British horror cycle of the early seventies.
Cry Of The Banshee was released on US Region One DVD back in 2003 by MGM on a double-bill with Gordon Hessler's loose 1971 Edgar Allan Poe adaptation Murders In The Rue Morgue as part of their Midnite Movies range. Cry Of The Banshee is presented in its fully uncut British version in an extremely attractive 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen print. MGM's disc also features an 18 minute featurette entitled A Devilish Tale Of Poe in which Gordon Hessler himself sheds some light on his work on Cry Of The Banshee. It appears that this release is now out of print and the usual chancers on Amazon Marketplace are commanding inflated prices for it (surprise, surprise).
Cry Of The Banshee has also been very recently released on UK DVD by Optimum Home Entertainment. However, I have no idea how their release compares to MGM's.
Cry of the Banshee + Murders In The Rue Morgue: amazon.com l amazon.co.uk (MGM Midnite Movies)
Cry of the Banshee: amazon.co.uk (Optimum)