Cry of the Banshee

I’m guessing child protection agencies today would cringe at the thought of a wee sprout staying up until two or three in the morning just so he can thrill as Boris Karloff lurks in some shadows or Vincent Price bugs out his eyes at some fantastic and horrible sight. But for you Teleport City readers, such behavior should be par for the course, and I figure it’s healthier than watching realty television, where there is just as much family dysfunction but far fewer werewolves. The first AIP horror films I remember seeing were Cry of the Banshee and The Terror. I would see Cry of the Banshee pop up once every couple of years, and then when I got cable television, The Terror seemed to pop up every other night. Cry of the Banshee I first saw on a wildly enjoyable night that also boasted broadcast of the Hammer version of The Hound of the Baskervilles and Darby O’Gill and the Little People, from back when children’s movies used to be fun and imaginative and sometimes even dark, scary, and not filled with sassy pre-teens driving go-carts and having sleepovers. instead, they had drunks dancing jigs and Sean Connery punching people in the face.

Ironically — at least, I think it’s ironic — Darby O’Gill and the Little People not only featured the leprechauns you would expect, but also featured a banshee, and a fairly chilling apparition it was to my young eyes. Cry of the Banshee, however, did not feature a banshee, or even a regular ghost who was simply fond of howling. It did feature some crying, but with a title like Cry of the Banshee one expects a banshee. That didn’t stop me from loving the movie, however, and as the years passed I mistakenly thought that the banshee I was remembering was from Cry of the Banshee. I mean, that makes sense, right? After all, I was young and it was already pretty late. I also remembered a weird glowing dog that I assume was something out of The Hound of the Baskervilles, though now that I think about it, it  wasn’t. But anyway, a few weeks ago I was watching Darby O’Gill and the Little People on TV and well, what do you know? There was that banshee! I figured it was abut time, then, that I sat down and refreshed my memory as to the actual contents of Cry of the Banshee despite the fact that I’m always a bit hesitant to revisit childhood favorites — not because I’m afraid I’ll realize how awful they are, but because I still won’t realize how awful they are and will thus go right on praising the merits of a film like Cry of the Banshee even when the whole of the free world has pronounced it rather on the shabby side.

But Cry of the Banshee doesn’t just have nostalgia on its side. It also has Vincent Price, and a film has to be phenomenally bad before Vincent Price can’t make it watchable. He’s one of my  favorite actors of all time, sitting on his throne alongside the likes of Bunta Sugawara, Peter Cushing, Robert Mitchum, and Michael Caine. In the case of Cry of the Banshee, he’s sitting on his thrown while also wearing huge poofy Henry VIII robes. Price more than any other actor understood exactly how far over the top he had to go for every film he was in. Movies like Laura proved he was an accomplished and well-trained dramatic actor who, had he been given the chance, could have become known as such. But it was horror for Price, and horror is all the better for his participation. He knew when a film was could and thus could be played straight, but more importantly, he knew when a film was bad and required that he chew some scenery. The worse the film, the more Price would escalate his character, though he never crossed over into the realm of intentional wink-at-the-camera irony unless it was specifically called for. What made him so good was that even at the height of his hamminess he always made you believe the character. As we’ve discussed in relation to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and all the actors at Hammer, Price goes about portraying each character with gusto and total conviction.

He was also one of the most well-respected intellectuals that acting ever saw, which puts him in the company of Christopher Lee, among others. Believe it or not, there was a time when you could go through movies and still find some gentlemen who cherished intelligence, culture, and wit. Price was reportedly a startlingly well-informed man of the world who could discuss with authority any number of topics from art history to the arcane. It’d be nice if there were more stars around today like him, but I reckon the fact that there aren’t makes men like Price and Lee all the more impressive. The fact that they were in movies like Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs and Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf respectively, didn’t keep them from being men of dignity, refinement, and sophistication. So remember, when you get up in the morning, to try and live your life a little more like Vincent Price and Christopher Lee.

Another similarity between Price and Lee is that both men were so, so damn good at being evil on screen, and in particular and playing evil figures of authority. Price was the defining figure in just about all of AIP’s Poe films, and he spent much of the time relishing his role as a thoroughly horrible figure of menace who, despite how horrendous he is, you can’t help but kind of like since Price injects each character with his own undeniable charisma and glee for the macabre. His most famously rotten villain is perhaps that of the witchfinder general in AIP’s wonderful Conqueror Worm. Following not too far behind is the vile Lord Edward Whitman in Cry of the Banshee, a character so totally devoid of even the faintest trace of likability that he inhabits a film constructed entirely around the anticipation of seeing this right bastard get his comeuppance.

Whitman and his aristocratic family lord over a small Scottish town with an iron fist. Whitman is particularly fond of tracking down Scotland’s few remaining pagans and either forcing them to convert to Christianity or simply torturing them to death. It doesn’t really matter which, as long as he gets to burn someone alive. As is par for the course, many innocents suffer at the hands of Whitman and his thuggish bunch, but when they cross an actual group of witches with actual dark and mysterious powers, the Whitmans find themselves suddenly under a curse that sees the family members dying off one by one in the most spectacularly gory of fashions, generally at the hands, or paws, or claws of a hideous werewolfy sort of thing played in human form by Patrick Mower (The Devil Rides Out — the guy just can’t seem to keep himself from getting involved with witches, can he). He worms (but not conqueror worms) his way into the Whitman family by romancing young Maureen Whitman, played by AIP regular Hilary Dwyer (aka Hilary Heath), who also starred alongside Price in The Conqueror Worm and The Oblong Box. She plays the closest thing this film has to a sympathetic character in the Whitman family, though her willingness to turn a blind eye other father’s brutality flaws her character, just as her more enlightened and educated brother, Harry (Carl Rigg, also in AIP’s The Oblong Box), seems at first to be a sympathetic character, right up until he starts slitting witch throats in defense of his father’s reign of terror.

You may be asking yourself one of two questions. First, what does this have to do with banshees? Second, what does this have to do with Edgar Allen Poe? The answer to both is that it has about as much to do with banshees as it has to do with Poe, which is very little, if anything at all. The “Poe films” was the blanket term applied to all of AIP’s period horror films, even though quite a few of them had nothing to do with the works of Poe. For that matter, the ones that did often did little more than borrow the title and maybe throw up a convenient quote from Poe. Sometimes it would even be from the same work as that used for the title of the film! But the plots rarely bore any resemblance to the source material. I’m not unfamiliar with the works of Poe, as any self-respecting fan of horror and chills should have read at least a portion of the man’s work, but I’m no student of Poe. I don’t think he ever wrote anything called “Cry of the Banshee.”

So a Poe film that isn’t a Poe film is par for the course when it comes to AIP gothic horrors (Remember Edgar Allen Poe’s H.P. Lovecraft’s The Haunted Palace?). It was just easier to relate all the movies to Edgar Allen Poe and be done with it, sort of like making all Italian sword and sandal films about Hercules. But what about the whole lack of banshee thing? That just doesn’t seem proper for a film whose title primes you for some serious banshee action, or as much action as a banshee can afford. I reckon for my non-Scottish brethren who are also unacquainted with the various types of spooks and spirits we have haunting the moors in our homeland, I should tell you what a banshee is. It’s a ghost, a female ghost, who appears and howls out the name of some unlucky soul, signifying that within 24 hours of hearing the banshee’s howl, that person will meet their demise. If banshees do much more than that and scare Darby O’Gill, then I missed that part of Scottish supernatural heritage class.

But it doesn’t matter so much for this movie, in which there are no banshees. One scene pays lip service to banshees when a howl of the damned arises from outside. Someone says, “Hmm, must be a banshee.” Anyway, anyone who has ever been locked in mortal or immortal combat with the forces of the supernatural will recognize that the howl isn’t from a banshee; it’s a werewolf’s howl, an identification seemingly confirmed by the fact that a killer wolf creature shows up to dispense witch’s justice. The reason Cry of the Banshee is called Cry of the Banshee even though it doesn’t have any banshees in it is because AIP was in the practice of coming up with a title, selling the film based on the title, then drumming up a script to go with the title after the fact. According to director Gordon Hessler, who shot many of AIP’s most sadistic Gothic horror films, the original script for Cry of the Banshee was awful, so he and an associate set about doing rewrites. By the time they were finished, it was an entirely different picture, and AIP was upset since there was no banshee in the film. Some more rewrites were done to work in a mention of the banshee, and that was that.

How bad the original script was and what sort of banshee quotient it contained remains a mystery. But frankly, given his track record and the evidence of his rewriting, Gordon Hessler was hardly the guy to be criticizing scripts. I like a lot a Hessler films (The Oblong Box, Scream and Scream Again, Murders in the Rue Morgue, and even his foray into ninja cinema, Pray for Death), even love a few of them (Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park). But it’s not like he was making high art. The script for Cry of the Banshee as it is filmed isn’t exactly a stunner. As with lots of AIP films, there is a lot of talking. Some of it interesting, some of it less so. An uneven pace hampers the film, made worse by the fact that you either hate or don’t care about any of the characters, meaning the only thing you have to look forward to is their inevitable death at the hands of Itchy the Werewolf Thing.

Cry of the Banshee does manage to contain everything you need to have a successful “burn the witches!” movie though. You have the dirty peasants. The rack. The hangings. The random accusations of witchcraft. And as was de rigueur for all AIP gothics, the random “bawdy ale house” scene where patrons shout a lot and spill their ale as busty wenches dance on the tables and have their blouses ripped open for the requisite gratuitous boob shot. What sets Cry of the Banshee apart from other similar period witchcraft movies is that, first, it ends up containing actual witches instead of just a bunch of hot but innocent women accused of being witches, and second, the witches are the nominal good guys. Oona the head witch, played by Elizabeth Bergner (who worked mainly in German and Austrian productions) looking kind of like Debbie Harry does now but with wilder “crazy witch woman” hair, wants nothing but to be left alone so her and her coven can frolic semi-nude in the woods like a bunch of rejects from some community theater production of Hair. As far as pagan rites go, theirs are pretty lame and consist mostly of sinewy extras thrashing about and doing “jazz hands!”

Silly though they may be, Oona and her crew don’t bother anyone. In fact, most of the villagers seem nominally Christian at best, forced into paying lip service to the belief but not-so-secretly still sympathetic to their native religion with its camping trips, drunken revelries, and nudity. Who wouldn’t be? You gonna willingly trade that in for a religion full of dour-faced old men with bulldog jowls barking on about how sinful you are as they whack your knuckles with a ruler and tell you to stop showing so much ankle in your dress? But the Whitmans and their sidekick priest will have no pagans in their territory. They harass Oona and even murder the guy who leaps about as if joyously proclaiming, “Behold! I am a fawn! A spriteful fawn!” Thus, you know, the curse and all.

None of the pagans save Oona have much of a character, so even though we’re allowed to identify with the oppressed indigenous religion, we can’t really identify with them. Even Oona is pretty one-dimensional, and you can’t side with her entirely since she choreographed such lame pagan rites. Luckily, the Whitmans and The Church are so vile, so reprehensible, so thoroughly corrupt that Oona doesn’t have to do much to be better than they. The casting of the witches and pagans as the good guys, and Christianity as the murderous oppressors seems bolder than it actually was for the time. Looking back from an era in which being negative about any organized religion is once again a taboo, Cry of the Banshee’s pro-witch agenda seems daring. But remember that the 1970s were a time in which people were actually willing to make risky political and social statements. The late 1960s had paved the way via a series of films that cast Satanists in a more sympathetic, if not entirely heroic, light, and witch movies in which the church is portrayed as vicious and corrupt were a dime a dozen in the 1970s. Even so, it’s nice to see the underdog represented and, for a change, even victorious over the wretched forces of the Inquisition.

The other thing Cry of the Banshee has in common with the witch hunt movies that would come before and after it is a sadistic vicious streak a mile wide. Interrogations are extreme and the witches’ vengeance doesn’t stop to consider that some members of the Whitman family are not as evil as their father. Cry of the Banshee doesn’t revel in or sexualize torture to the point of the most infamous title in the witch hunt sub-genre, Mark of the Devil, but the torture is still plenty explicit and manages to work in a couple gratuitous bare breasts. Everything is augmented by the film’s nasty demeanor.

The acting is uniformly good. Price’s character lacks the depth and nasty appeal of his best villains, Matthew Hopkins from Conqueror Worm and Prospero from Masque of the Red Death, but he’s suitably evil and Price is always a joy to watch as he scowls, sneers, and makes his bug-eyed “aghast” face. The supporting players are all good as well. Mower as the bestial Roderick shows suitable menace and, in line with the film’s nasty streak of cruelty, never shows any remorse over the fact that he transforms into a hideous beast that claws out throats, even though he’s mostly murdering the Whitman women before getting down to extracting a vague but undoubtedly deliciously gory vengeance on Lord Edward during the film’s eerie finale. There’s also a great score by famed exotica composer Les Baxter, who aside from writing tunes about pyramids and Polynesia and various sorts of globe-trotting adventure, was also an accomplished compose of music for films. AIP used him frequently either to score their own films or provide replacement scores for imported and dubbed films like Black Sunday, Baron Blood (both films by Mario Bava), and a pile of sword and sandal epics. Baxter’s score sets the mood perfectly, as do the bizarre animated opening credits by none other than Monty Python’s resident animator and future director Terry Gilliam.

The main problem with Cry of the Banshee is that all of this should be a lot more interesting than it turns out to be. With naked witches, pagan rites, vengeful landlords, corrupt priests, witch burnings, and a ratty werewolf tearing out throats, Cry of the Banshee should be a thrilling, chilling, grotesque affair. It manages a few chills, a fair deal of grotesqueness, but definitely no thrills until perhaps the very final shot. As I said earlier, too much of the film is taken up with unlikable characters saying uninteresting things. If I was coming into this film without a bias toward Price and costumed gothic horror films, it would probably be less enjoyable and a whole lot more boring. But those biases are firmly in place, as well as my own nostalgia over watching the film as a kid, so Cry of the Banshee is still an entertaining film for me. Not Price’s best, by far, and not AIP’s best gothic horror or even their best witch hunter movie. But good enough and mean enough to satisfy the darker, more malicious parts of my brain.