Cry of the Banshee

04/10/2020 05:56

Film: Cry of the Banshee

Year: 1970

Director: Gordon Hessler

Writer: Tim Kelly and Christopher Wicking

Starring: Vincent Price, Essy Persson and Hilary Heath



This was a movie that I actually first heard about in a horror movie encyclopedia I’m working through. The only other time was on The Podcast Under the Stairs where Duncan doing one of his side shows, Chronicle, about British folk horror and this was the focus of an episode. I was intrigued as I knew it was coming up on my list to see soon. The synopsis is in 1500s England, a cruel witch-hunting magistrate, who often tortures innocent villagers for his entertainment, runs afoul of a witch.

Now I did alter the synopsis that was listed on the Internet Movie Database as I felt that it went a bit spoiler heavy. As I was reading through it though, I remembered the text that is displayed at the beginning of the movie. There’s a quote from Edgar Allan Poe, which I think was just there to capitalize on the success of the earlier Roger Corman adaptations that Vincent Price also starred in. The other text that comes up at the end of the credits is that this is a time where people are between Christianity and more pagan beliefs, with those in power in fear that witchcraft could actually be real.

The movie then starts with Margaret Donald (Victoria Fairbrother) on trial for being a witch. The evidence against her is that she was living in a manor where the family was accused of being a witch and there were trinkets in her room that pointed she was also practicing. Lord Edward Whitman (Price) is presiding. She will not confess, so she is branded a heretic, lashed as she walks down the street and then is locked into shackles.

There’s then a party at Lord Edward’s manor where he is seated with his wife, Lady Patricia (Essy Persson). We learn that she is his third wife and she really doesn’t have the stomach for the pleasures that her husband does. We get a taste as two children are found and they’re humiliated for sport. Lord Edward’s son Sean (Stephan Chase) is there and he’s as cruel as his father. We get a horrible scene where he rapes his stepmother after taking her to her room.

They lose the fun of partying when a wolf is heard. There’s supposed to be a mad dog that is roaming the countryside and killing sheep. A man at the party references that it could also be a banshee, a creature that is summoned to bring death to those that are cursed.

Lord Edward also has a daughter, Maureen (Hilary Heath) who has fallen for Roderick (Patrick Mower). He’s a gypsy that was taken in by Lady Patricia when she found him roaming the woods as a boy. He’s able to keep her company and keep her grounded. We also see later that he’s able to use this ability with others as well.

As the synopsis states, there’s rumors of witchcraft in the area. Lord Edward’s other son Harry (Carl Rigg) returns home with a new priest for the area, Father Tom (Marshall Jones). Sean though learns from a local girl about a coven of witches that are led by Oona (Elisabeth Bergner). They find them and interrupt a ritual. Most of the coven is killed, but Oona is allowed to leave as a warning to stop her ways. She instead calls upon the banshee to punish Lord Edward by killing those that he loves.

Now I’ll admit, I didn’t come in as blind as I normally like to, but I don’t think that hurt my viewing of this movie. I’m pretty new to this subgenre of these period piece witch-hunt type films, but I do really dig the concept. What is terrifying about it is that they really happened and it is completely horrible to think that people used to do this. As an atheist, it is things like this that pushed me into the beliefs that I have and that we really aren’t that much different from this way of thinking, we just don’t go about it like we used to.

To shift slightly, this is an interesting take on this. Lord Edward comes out and says very early on that he doesn’t really believe there are witches. We’re still see people convicted on very little evidence and at times, you just didn’t like someone and you could accuse them of being a witch. Conversely, when the man claims the wild dog that has been killing his sheep is bewitched, Lord Edward shuts it down that the dog is mad. He really uses this witch hunt for his gain of torturing people for pleasure and to control people who are against him. It isn’t until the supernatural things that he thinks to be happening are getting closer to him does he start to change what he believes. Father Tom doesn’t believe it either which I found interesting, as many times the priests were right there in believing.

This movie also has a supernatural element to it. Normally in movies like this, there are no witches and this is how it starts. When they introduced Oona and her coven, I was pretty shocked. We get an interesting thing that happens here though. We get to see that the creature they’re summoning might actually not be a creature. This makes me think more of the idea that the werewolf mythos started as people couldn’t believe a man could commit the crimes they were finding so they assume it had to be a man-beast. You could almost see that happening here as well, especially since we are getting the howling that sounds like a wolf. The movie makes you think it is creature with how things play out, but I could also see this other explanation as well.

I want to shift this over to the pacing of the movie, which I do think that this is slow. It is surprising that with 91 minute runtime, but the movie kind of drug for me. I did hear there were production problems where the director Gordon Hessler didn’t get along with Price so I’m wondering if that is part of why this feels this way. My other reasoning is that it takes almost half of the movie to get to the encounter with Oona and that’s where it picks up. I’m wondering if they took too long to set things up to pad the time. I did like seeing how this played out and I just uncomfortable with things that Lord Edward and Sean were doing as well.

Speaking of these characters, the acting was good across the board for me. This isn’t Price’s best role and it does feel like his heart isn’t in it. I think this is a different take on movies he had been doing in this same subgenre, but that’s not to say he’s bad. I think his performance still works for what was needed. Persson is fine the small role that she has. I do like seeing her descend into madness. Heath was good and she plays well with Rigg who is her brother in the movie. She her interact with Roderick is also good since I knew from the first time seeing them together this was probably forbidden. This causes her to tell lies to her father. As for Chase, I liked his performance in a way that I like villains. He is a scoundrel and I loved to see him getting his just punishment. I’d say that Bergner, Mower, Fairbrother and Jones were all solid as well. They help to round this movie out with the rest of the cast.

The final thing to go over would be the effects of the movie. Overall we really don’t get a lot as it isn’t necessarily that type of movie. The rituals that are done don’t necessarily show you how they would actually play out. The blood in the movie looked pretty real and there’s not a lot of it to be honest. The interesting thing is the creature in the movie. They keep it in the shadows and I’m wondering if that was to find the effect or was it to play up my idea that this might not actually be a creature? It is thought to be a banshee, but this could just be using the mythology behind it. I’m not really up on the banshee to be honest, but it does feel more like a werewolf actually. I probably need to look more into this, but I liked that. The rest of the cinematography was well done overall.

Now with that said this movie does quite a few things that I do enjoy in this subgenre. This is interesting to take something that really happened in world history and play on with a supernatural twist. I like that this is making the witches out to be the good people as Lord Edward and his family are punished. The movie is a bit slow if I’m honest. The acting was pretty solid across the board and I thought the effects worked for what was needed. The soundtrack didn’t really stand out to me, but it also didn’t hurt the movie either in my opinion. Overall I would say that this is above average movie for me. Definitely will also be one that I check out again.


My Rating: 7 out of 10