Directed by Gordon Hessler
Written by Tim Kelly and Christopher Wicking
I have intimated previously that the so-called "Conqueror Worm"—that is to say, Witchfinder General, a film full of death but not in any recognizable sense about morbidity, yet retitled by AIP for American release under that name to tie it to their popular series of Edgar Allan Poe films made under Roger Corman—was somehow not the absolute bottom of their Poesploitative shamelessness. And I suppose that deciding which of their several affronts to Poe was the greatest would have to be, in the end, a matter of personal judgment, so feel free to disagree. But to my mind, 1970's Cry of the Banshee amounts to such pathetic carnival barking that I almost wheel around to liking it: Cry of the Banshee was marketed as being "based" upon an Edgar Allan Poe poem that never existed, and was written (according to an unsourced attribution I just stumbled across) by somebody named Francis Duggan, whoever the hell that is. And that poem isn't even on all of the posters, replaced on others by a dubious poetic rambling that I'm fairly sure doesn't scan. The film itself opens up with a quotation from an actual Poe poem, "The Bells," a schematic journey through a human life cycle told by way of those events traditionally accompanied by bells, which I believe I like quite a bit but I'm not enough of a poetry-head to say for sure, as it has what looks like a terrifically complicated construction that seems to swing instantaneously from "basically 'The Raven'" to "apparently, an arena rock song," but I do like it sufficiently that I would very much prefer talking about "The Bells," even without knowing what I was talking about, than I would Cry of the Banshee, which is one of the dreariest things we've looked at in this series. The fake Poe poem, incidentally, ends with the line "A Thing that had ne'er learned to die," and, for this twelfth entry in AIP's Poe series, it's entirely possible this was an intentional double entendre.
In any case, I was saying that the movie opens with a quote from "The Bells," sliced rudely out of the poem, making it ungainly, and it appears to have the intention of concluding the lines, "Too much horrified to speak/They can only shriek, shriek" with "the CRY OF THE BANSHEE," which, probably needless to say, is not how it goes and, awkwardly, the title card makes it look like "They can only shriek, shriek Edgar Allan Poe" anyway. Subsequently, we get an animated title sequence to which one might be willing to offer some marginal respect, in its gestures at late medieval art, because one may misremember things and imagine that it merely prefigures the goofy-looking animated sequences of Monty Python's Flying Circus. (Its initial gesture is Vincent Price's head opening up.) This respect, however, may be extinguished when one recalls that Monty Python's Flying Circus started in 1969, and it should be extinguished once one learns it really is just the actual Terry Gilliam, meaning that somebody, presumably director Gordon Hessler, actively sought after the guy who was doing silly comedic surrealist cutout animation for this grody horror movie (and, of course, he hadn't done Holy Grail yet) and didn't ask him to tone down, for example, the googly eyes; I think I rejected it when I noticed that movie isn't set in the medieval period, so what the hell is this shit, even. The movie has about fuck-all to do with banshees, for that matter, but it does at least have more to do with banshees than it has to do with Poe.
What the movie is, then, is a knock-off of Witchfinder General, an established horror classic whose reputation I'm on record as finding positively baffling, but which was a hit and therefore had invited AIP to do more of it, much as they had done with Corman's Poes. It is of course altogether unclear if Witchfinder General's director, Michael Reeves, would have had the patience and flexibility that Corman demonstrated with his Poe Cycle, and accordingly if he'd have willingly gone into the business of knocking himself off like that; it's an unanswerable question, sadly, because Reeves had passed away, either by overdose or suicide, the previous year. Hessler, however, had taken over at least one Reeves AIP project and possibly two, the similarly PINO Poe adaptation, 1969's The Oblong Box, and the remarkably offbeat paranoid thriller from earlier in 1970, Scream and Scream Again; and, with a record like that, it's at least in character that he was willing to try his hand at a variation on Reeves's most significant film.
And while I don't like Cry of the Banshee, I have to give it enough credit to call it a genuine variation. The really salient distinction, obviously, is that in Cry of the Banshee witches are real, whereas a big part of Witchfinder General's classic status is bound up in the relative sobriety of its treatment of witch hunting as a scam concealing baser motivations, and so the reflexive response would be to assume that Cry of the Banshee is a vastly tackier effort. This is, indeed, much the case, though as Witchfinder General arguably reached the limits of its approach before it had even reached the limits of its runtime, I'm not sure that makes for a compelling reason that Banshee should have followed suit, especially considering it follows suit in many other respects, such as ensuring that it's extremely dour and virtually never entertaining.
Besides real witches, it can't be described as straying too far from the template, and so, sometime in the late 16th century in England, we find a magistrate, famed for rooting out witches, being played by Vincent Price, and we kick things off with an object example of his work in the form of a woman (Pamela Farbrother) being torturously punished for witchcraft, though not as yet killed, which is very faintly interesting in that it does at least nod to the historical reality that outside of the infamous judicial massacres, people weren't usually just executed left and right for heresy in England. We also have Hessler filling out his own template, so far as Oblong Box and this represent that template and Scream and Scream Again doesn't, as he kicks his horror movie off with what will remain by some margin its single most interesting shot—I'm not sure it's literally the first shot, but I'm fairly confident that the image of Price presiding over the latest witch trial, his face distorted by the heat haze rising off the "H for heretic" brand his underling wields, arrives within the first minute—and likewise we get Hessler's penchant for people pawing at featured female extras' breasts and ripping their shirts, though since in this instance the bit player has smaller breasts, I guess it's very subversive.
And so, at the risk of tiresomely swinging back to "is this fucking guy still doing 'preface' in a review for a 91 minute movie?": I'm not even accusing Hessler of being exploitative in the strictest sense of that term—nor does it appear to have been an AIP demand, or if it was, they retreated immediately, for when AIP got ahold of Hessler's movie, they edited the shit out of it, removing every bit of nudity that Hessler had put in, sometimes taking recourse to reframing whole shots (they also changed the sequencing of the film, shifting the mid-film witch massacre to the beginning, which I suppose buys the film a more lurid, conventionally "horror movie" energy at the outset, albeit in exchange for a rather less coherent plot; they furthermore switched out Wilfred Joseph's score for a Les Baxter, but while folks say the Joseph score is much more appropriate to an Elizabethan-set picture, I will admit to not really noticing either score very much). Anyway, exploitation would probably be an improvement—I might like Cry of the Banshee better if my impulse to clarify my above statements, adding that I have no dogmatic beliefs regarding the proper size of nice breasts, were not rendered by the context completely and outrageously inappropriate. I'm willing to accord Hessler enough good faith to assume he thought he was doing an art here, and he is absolutely following Reeves in this respect, even outdoing him; the extremely sexual violence-forward complexion of the director's cut, which is the one I screened while actually paying attention, is part and parcel to a full-tilt dedication to doing miserablism precisely for miserablism's sake—it's that kind of art—and that energy pretty much defines both Witchfinder General and Cry of the Banshee, though Cry of the Banshee undoubtedly suffers more (though I'm not prepared to call it "worse") from the requirements and restrictions of an AIP horror joint. And so at all times it feels exploitative, and always in the most incorrect, 70s, bad-sleazy ways.
Well, back to the plot in progress, that Price-portrayed aristocrat is Lord Edward Whitman, and he has found himself in generational struggle with the witches of his jurisdiction, and he's also managed to raise a thoroughly dysfunctional family, with one son who has fallen almost no distance whatsoever from his cruel tree, Sean (Stephan Chase), who torments villagers in between bouts of raping his stepmother Lady Sarah (Sally Geeson), as well as two other children, a daughter, Maureen (Hilary Dwyer), who laments the ugliness of it all, and another son, Harry (Carl Rigg), recently returned from getting his woke education at 16th century Cambridge, during which period he began to question somewhat the utility of torturing and murdering "witches" especially when his dad doesn't even think they're real. However, on this point both Edward and Harry are incorrect: witches are real, the satanic power their leader Oona (Elisabeth Bergner) invokes on her cult's behalf finding its incarnation in Roderick (Patrick Mower), orphaned servant-slave of the Whitmans—and also Maureen's secret lover—whom we learn rather early on its somehow subject to Oona's commands, though we don't learn exactly how till after the killing has begun in earnest. Though you will notice that there is supposedly a mad dog out there; and that when Roderick confronts this dog the film's only real subjective flourish, such as it is, a subtle but unaccountable red light, illuminates his face; and that this mad dog's attacks continue even after the dog's head's been cut off and put on a pike.
On paper all of this, or some of this, probably sounds reasonably enjoyable, but this is a Witchfinder General, so joy is banished from practically every corner, and instead the film is basically just cycling through scenes of varied unpleasantness—not even that varied, really—until, not to spoil things, somewhere between "most everybody" and "literally everybody" is dead. In pursuing this, it even winds up to a noticeable degree something of a patchwork of long-dead Corman Poe parts; for example, our first scene with Edward at home, during a banquet, is a complete regurgitation of The Masque of the Red Death except Prospero's cosmic malevolence has been reduced to just some quotidian, the-past-was-like-that evil. (And it is worthwhile to point out how much of a thing of the past Daniel Haller's sets are by this point: Edward's banquet takes place in a flatly-lit chamber about the size of my living room; it doesn't even need to be pointed out how keenly Corman is missed, and while Scream Again is terrific, it's also set in 1970, and it's possible Hessler just never really got the hang of the more magisterial-on-a-budget style of an AIP period piece.) Of course, a lot of the movie is just Sean and his henchmen menacing barmaids, which doesn't even rise to the level of an echo of past glory.
The script, mostly written by Christopher Wicking from a first draft by Tim Kelly ("Christopher Wicking rewrites the whole thing" was the Gordon Hessler move in this period, with deeply uneven results), has a modicum of erudition to it, such as recognizing that folk belief in magic has persisted since before the dawn of Christianity and continued into the early modern era (and, unfortunately, it persists right up till present day), and has existed more-or-less in tandem with the Church despite that Church's persistent efforts to call it heresy and devil worship, and it at least wants to frame this in a specifically Celtic paganism in ways that are probably pretty dubious for 16th century England, if the particularly Irish touchstones it uses were even part of British paganism at all. These aren't the thinnest reeds for a horror movie to grasp onto, and while it's more of a bog-standard and contemporized "a bunch of anonymous hippies dig the Devil" movie version of Satanism that we're dealing with than the screenplay appears to think, and it never really quite manages to make any of this interesting conceptually, it's still better than the rest of that screenplay, which is under the entirely mistaken impression it's prosecuting an epic family drama on AIP's dime. This drags the film down at least as much as its violence-inherent-in-the-system sadism, and since it's banking on a principal cast that is uniformly mediocre-to-bad past Price and not written with much definition in any case—from the wan insincerity of Dwyer's daughter to the one-note jerkassery of Chase's evil son, all the way down to another featured extra's (Jan Rossini's) apparent total inability to be in any group shot without effectively photobombing it, and all of it in a story that's, fundamentally, just a slasher about a werewolf—there is a whiff of pretension that it has no hope in hell of really living up to, or down to, despite a lot of cosplay nihilism.
If it does eke out an identity unique from and superior to Witchfinder General, it's that Cry of the Banshee at least comprehends how to be, rather than spending its entire runtime resenting being, a Vincent Price movie, so even though pretty much every single thing here is secondhand in some way or another, there are occasional Price fan rewards. He's at least given leave, anyway, to do his Price thing within the material, especially when the material reluctantly bends somewhat to the "AIP Poe" trappings, particularly the familiar and comforting sight of Price once again grieving over a spouse, either unfortunately sandbagged, or revealing a touch of psychological complexity, depending on your evaluation of the movie around it, by how much he seemed to have hated her previously. We even get one genuinely memorable Vincent Price moment as the story climaxes (though this is not quite the end), adhering very dutifully to that Witchfinder General template, with mad rantings juxtaposed against hysterical screaming—the latter is the same damn person screaming, and, credit where it's due, this is Dwyer's best and least-tentative acting across all of the three films we've seen her in—as Price dementedly congratulates his offspring for rising to the challenge of the violence he believes this savage world calls for, all he'd ever asked of any of his spawn. And hell, the ending isn't so wearisome as the rest of it, and there's something to be said of a film that saves its best for last: between some Poevian coffin play and an unexpected/completely expected resurgence of the terror, the denouement actually manages to be satisfying, even—could it be?—fun. It's a pity that nothing in the first eighty minutes of Cry of the Banshee was built accordingly.