Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Cry of the Banshee (1970)

Welcome to 17th Century England! And you know what that means by now. Right, it’s witch hunting time. Our witch hunter of the night is one Lord Edward Whitman (of course Vincent Price), sadistic maniac and father to a family that’s already seen as at least a bit cursed by everyone around before the plot even begins. Regular murder and torture of harmless pagans (because this is one of these movies where a witch cult did indeed exist but consisted of pretty damn lame ersatz hippies) is a bit of a family sport too, for Edward’s son Sean (Stephan Chase) is his dad’s main henchman and clearly just as unhinged as the elder Whitman.

Sean likes himself a bit of rape on the side too, and doesn’t even keep away from his stepmother, Lady Patricia (Ess Persson). After what we can suspect but don’t exactly know to be only the first rape of many, Patricia is heavily traumatized, with the house’s groom Roderick (Patrick Mower), a mysterious foundling with a strange power over animals, the only man she still feels safe with. Before she was destroyed in this way, Patricia was one of the few household members who didn’t approve of the regular dose of violence and torture for dinner (I’m not speaking metaphorically). Now it’s only Whitman’s daughter Maureen (Hilary Dwyer) who disapproves, though not too loudly, and she’s easily distracted by a love affair with Roderick.

However, just about at the time when Edward’s other son Harry (Carl Rigg) - who also doesn’t exactly approve of his family’s inherent violence – returns home, the witch hunter finally messes with the wrong witch. Breaking up a gathering (I think it’s supposed to be more like a harmless hippie orgy, but it’s just too harmless to even call it an orgy) of the followers of priestess Oona (Elizabeth Bergner), he lets his men murder about half of them, sparing the life of the rest for reasons the script never makes us privy to but that just might have to do with the plot really needing to get going any minute now.

And wouldn’t you know it, a few hours later, Oona and the rest of her people are suddenly all into Lord Satan and beg him to send them an avenger. Turns out Roderick is one of the Good Folk, or something, and only needs a bit of magical convincing to give that damn family what for.

If all this sounds rather convoluted and circumspect, with a lot of elements that don’t quite make sense, and many an idea that is never quite properly developed, then you’ve got the right picture of Cry of the Banshee. And oh, the titular banshee is of course more a sort-of werewolf, too. Everything’s very vague, very convoluted and never makes as much sense as it probably would like to. Parts of the film (whose end credits list the Whitman’s as “The Establishment”, I kid you not) are clearly meant to convey some sort of message about contemporary youth revolt, probably something like “don’t burn those harmless hippies, or they’ll turn evil” but it’s neither coherent in what it wants to say nor very imaginative in the way it does so. Parts of the film feel like a dry run for the following year’s brilliant Blood on Satan’s Claw but the only actual relation between those two is a historical and thematic parallel, because Cry of the Banshee never really seems to know what kind of film it actually wants to be, with the deeply unpleasant rape and torture scenes and Vincent Price probably the commercial reasons for its existence, thanks to the much more successful (in any sense of the word) The Conqueror Worm from a few years earlier.

Yes, it’s AIP trying to cash in on its own successes again, and like it was with the late Poe adaptations, they left the mess to Gordon Hessler to direct. As happened so often in that man’s career, the resulting film is a prettily (but not too prettily) shot mess with single scenes that belong in a much better film and which suggest Hessler could have made much more of himself than the hired gun he ended up being. Like most Hessler films I’ve seen, things start out promising, with the effective cruelty of the beginning, the actually horrifying rape scene, and Vincent Price giving a kind of greatest hits performance of Evil Vincent Price. The middle act however is a boring drag full of scenes that are re-establishing things the film already established before, and a plot that seems to be treading water in an attempt to somehow get this thing to full length, until the people involved seem to wake up again for a finale as cruel and bleak as only horror movie endings in the 70s were.

From time to time, there’s a good scene in the middle part too. Lady Patricia’s death is an obvious highlight, as is some throwaway business about weeping women that establishes more about the times the film takes place in and Edward’s character than half an hour of the rest of the film did. On the other hand, the film’s pagans/witches are probably the worst mixture of people who look like they don’t even have the guts to be proper hippies making whiny noises while throwing their hands up in the universal gesture for “whoosh, I am lame” imaginable, and don’t become any better or different when they turn vengeful, whining at poor Lord Satan for all they’re worth. It’s too bad, really, for there are two good horror movies – one about a family fucked up even for a horror movie family and one about the whole establishment versus hippies as told by witch hunt metaphors thing – lurking under the surface of Cry of the Banshee.

None of them does ever really come out, though.

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