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Cry of the Banshee
Tonight's Feature Presentation

CRY OF THE BANSHEE (1970)

Starring: Vincent Price, Elisabeth Bergner, Essy Persson, Patrick Mower, Hilary Dwyer

Written By: Christopher Wicking, Tim Kelly (story) Directed By: Gordon Hessler

The Short Version

Cry of the Banshee is very well made.

Cry of the Banshee is very well acted.

Craft does not equal entertainment value.

Cry of the Banshee is wretchedly ugly for the sake of being wretchedly ugly.

Whatever its merits, I cannot recommend this movie.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

LIMBURGER.

It stinks.  There’s good in it, but it’s impossible to get past the smell.

Pairs Well With...

MOGEN-DAVID.

Putting it in a wine bottle and making it out of grapes doesn’t make it wine.  Crack it open and you can smell it from 50 feet away.  I wouldn’t ask anyone to drink it.

“Ugly, isn’t it?”

If you start to watch Cry of the Banshee and turn it off in disgust after fifteen minutes, I won’t blame you.  In fact, I might even applaud.

Here is what happens in the first fifteen minutes of Cry of the Banshee.

Everything starts out innocuously enough as the opening credits roll.  Indeed, the credits are very much “Monty Python” in style, primarily because the opening titles were designed by Terry Gilliam.  On the surface, this makes no sense, even if Gilliam does go with a darker tone for his cut outs to play in.  If you want to go deeper, though, you might suppose that a Flying Circus credit roll fits in an abstract way with a circus of the damned such as this film turns out to be.

There’s also a printed quotation from Edgar Allan Poe, suggesting a connection that doesn’t exist.  (The poster lies, too.  Poe has nothing to do with this.)

Another text placard appears to inform us of where we are and what’s going on.  We’re an in English village in the 1500s, and the Magistrate, who calls himself a Christian, is very zealous about sniffing out and punishing witches of the “old religion.”  And who’s to say, we’re asked, which is the real power?

Vincent Price – Grand Master Emeritus of Gothic Horror, by my watch – is Lord Edward Whitman, Magistrate.  Before him is a woman who is accused of being the maid of a witch, which of course must make her a witch herself, though anything that may have proven this accusation toward either the woman or her employer must have been off camera, if we choose to be generous.  “H is for Heretic,” the Magistrate informs her, at which point he has the bailiff brand the letter H on the flesh of her chest.   She is then further sentenced to be whipped bloody as she is being dragged through the village streets, and then put in the stocks.

We then get a very graphic view of the woman being whipped bloody as she is being dragged through the streets – her top shredded in the process – and put into the stocks.  The streets, of course, are lined with good, pious Christians laughing their asses off, shouting abuses at her, and throwing refuse her way.

Once she’s in the stocks, the crowd threatens to get more intimately nasty when a rider comes into town with a bloody sheep in hand.  He claims that his sheep are being killed by a dog.  But it can’t be just any dog, of course.  Surely it must be a dog from Hell, ordered to kill his sheep by a witch.  The Magistrate orders the dog to be hunted and killed, and the good, pious crowd runs off for this new entertainment.

Night falls, and the Magistrate has a dinner party at his manor home.  He and his guests are living the pious high life when suddenly some of the Magistrate’s men burst in with a teenage boy and girl in tow.  The men caught the boy playing and Pan Pipe in the woods.  Wait!  A Pan Pipe?  Pagan!  Witchcraft!  Heretic!  (Yes; we draw this conclusion because he was caught playing music.  Rather like some overzealous parents who heard their kids playing Motley Crue once upon a time.  But anyway.)

The Magistrate then orders the boy to play his music, and orders the girl to dance.  He will have entertainment from the heretics!  The boy and girl would rather not, of course, but they’re given little choice.  The girl is hauled up onto the table and made to dance while the boy plays.  One of the spectators is turned on by the girl, and immediately calls her a witch.  This accusation is apparently all the excuse everyone needs to haul her back down from the table, begin to tear at her clothes, and pass her from pious Christian man to pious Christian man while said pious Christian men repeat the accusation and spend a few seconds apiece molesting her.

The Magistrate approves and even applauds such behavior in front of his wife, the only member of the assemblage with the good taste to be disgusted.

The boy really doesn’t like seeing his sister being assaulted, so he tries to stop it.  He is stabbed dead for his troubles.

The girl doesn’t like seeing her brother murdered.  She tries to stab the Magistrate, fails, and is shot dead for her troubles.

The Magistrate’s wife has had enough, and starts to babble about the house being cursed.  There’s also a howling coming from outside that some say is from a trapped dog and others say is from a banshee.  Either way, the wife is off to bed.

Cut to her bedroom.  Enter the Magistrate’s son, who proceeds to belittle the woman.  After a few seconds of this, he then starts tearing at her clothes goes ahead and rapes his stepmother.  (We will later learn that his father, enforcer of good pious Christian virtue, applauds such behavior in his son.)

All of this in the first.  Fifteen.  Minutes.

Read enough of my stuff, and you’ll quickly come to realize that next to nothing offends me.  Jason Voorhees racks up a body count?  I love it.  Sex equals death at Camp Crystal Lake? Awesome, and bring on the shower scene.  But.  There’s violence and gratuitous sex and gratuitous nudity, and there’s ugliness.  Slasher movies are the former; Cry of the Banshee is the latter.  The former can be and often are entertaining; the latter is not.

If you are vexed, I do apologize for the limits of language.  My description above is accurate, but the visual and psychological ugliness of what it describes cannot be properly conveyed in so short a span.  And in case you’re wondering, no, the assault described above is not the last that occurs here (next attempt just twelve minutes later, right after we hear a minstrel entertain a tavern by singing about a rape), and yes, the majority of the characters – the good, Christian characters – applaud this behavior, including the incest.

Not that I mean to make you think that this is a one-sided, anti-Christian affair.  Oh, no.  Because, you see, the witches we meet later, shown practicing what appears to be some form of Druidic nature worship, are revealed to actually be Satanists, and they’re violent and depraved, too, and happily employ a werewolf to kill for fun and revenge.  In the world of this movie, there can only be Christians and Satanists and nothing else, and most everyone of either vein is, quite bluntly, a depraved sack of human shit.  There might be one innocent here, but that’ll be taken care of soon enough.

There are no heroes.  There is no fun.  There is no entertainment.  There’s just more and more ugliness.

It’s all the uglier for the fact that the world of Cry of the Banshee is horribly accurate.  (Minus, of course, the one-or-the-other thing and the witches being Satanists.  News flash, people: organized, murderous Satan worship as sought by Inquisitors and overzealous parents everywhere has never existed, and English pagans were certainly not Satanists by any stretch.)  People really did act this way.  In many respects, they still do.  Jason Voorhees is fake.  Edward Whitman may be a fictional character, but fake?  Not so much.  Probably best not to think about that for too long, though.

For all the ugliness of its soul, so to speak, Cry of the Banshee is nevertheless beautifully dressed.  Visually, the quality of the sets, the costumes, and the locations are utterly outstanding.  For more than reasonable accuracy and quality of achieving the look of a period piece, Cry of the Banshee must indeed be judged as first rate.  Watch this movie, and you will feel like you’re there.

Cry of the Banshee is also graced with excellent acting, especially given its budget.  Vincent Price, of course, is a master, and his craft does not suffer here by any means.  Ugly though it may be, he breathes this role so long as he plays it, with none of the humor you may have come to expect from him.  Humor doesn’t fit the part, and so humor isn’t there.  And it’s not just Price bringing chops to the table; nearly every actor and actress, be they playing Lords or serving wenches, plays astoundingly well.  The only odd note comes from Elisabeth Bergner as Oona, the lead witch, and that is masked well enough.

The story, too, is tight and consistent, right up to and including its finish.  Take away the absurd fictions of the witches and religious dichotomy – a license which has been used by thousands of others and for which the writers can hardly be justifiably blamed – and it’s really hard to find technical flaw with it.

Beyond that, the only other real technical flaw comes from the direction of Gordon Hessler, whose (successful, I must say) attempt to create a dark and oppressive atmosphere also make Cry of the Banshee feel like it runs for the better part of a day instead its true runtime of an hour and a half.  Pacing could be better here, and Hessler’s oppressive atmospherics work too well.

Overall, though, on a technical level, Cry of the Banshee has very few strikes against it.  The acting is damn near flawless, every part of the production side save for the sound (which is monophonic and inconsistent) is flawless, and the story, though guilty of societal slander, can only be accused of taking a liberty that thousands have taken before.  Even with the slow pacing, technically, I should be applauding this movie.

And yet, personally, I would prefer to applaud if you do what I wanted to do and would have done had I not been watching for the purposes of review, and that is shut off the movie after fifteen minutes.  Or better yet, don’t bother with it at all.

Bottom line, whatever its technical merits may be, Cry of the Banshee is ugly for the sake of being ugly.  There is no real entertainment to be had here, and I cannot recommend this movie to anyone.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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