Cry of the Banshee is a movie that I’ve read so many bad things about that I must admit to approaching it with very low expectations. Which can sometimes be an advantage. And actually it’s quite a decent little horror flick.
This 1970 AIP production’s biggest problem is probably its superficial similarity to Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw, two of the best British horror movies of their era. Cry of the Banshee is not in the same league, but it’s still fun. Vincent Price gives a relatively non-hammy and fairly chilling performance as 16th century English magistrate Lord Edward Whitman who persecutes witches and heretics mercilessly. The witches in this movie are actually followers of the old pagan religion, and when Whitman has a large number of these people butchered their leader curses him, and in fact his whole family. The instrument of her vengeance is Roderick (Patrick Mower), a mysterious young man who is not what he seems. He’s a member of Whitman’s household, but not exactly a faithful member, given that he’s bedding Lord Edward’s wife (and seemingly most of the female members of the family) on a regular basis.
There are no major surprises in the plot. The most interesting thing about the script is the generally sympathetic portrayal of the witches. We are certainly intended to see things mostly from their point of view. The members of Whitman’s family are an interesting mixture. At least one son is a vicious thug, while another is a reasonably decent sort. As Whitman’s household are picked off one by one we have slightly mixed feelings - in some cases we feel they are getting what they deserve, in other cases we’re not so sure.
The acting is generally good, with Vincent Price (as so often) being the standout performer. Director Gordon Hessler does a competent job on a very tight budget, and wisely relies on shadows a good deal to hide slightly dodgy makeup and special effects. Mostly the movie looks quite good despite the budgetary limitations. There’s not much in the way of spectacle but it never looks really cheap or shoddy.
By 1970 standards there’s not a great deal of gore or nudity (there are about the number of topless serving wenches that you’d expect in a British horror movie of this vintage). It’s not by any means the kind of movie that is going to cause you to lose sleep from terror, but it delivers solid entertainment. Definitely worth a look for any fans of 1970s gothic horror. The Monty Python-style opening credits dequence by Terry Gilliam is also worth a mention.
The Region 4 DVD actually includes an extra! A brief doco on director Gordon Hessler. Here in Region 4 we’re grateful for any crumbs at all in the way of extras. And it’s a very decent print, with vibrant colours, and it’s widescreen.