Directed by: Gordon Hessler
Written by: Christopher Wicking
Produced by: Samuel Arkoff, Gordon Hessler and Louis Heyward
Reviewed by: Brett H.
American International Pictures was responsible for the bulk of the great horror films of the 1960s. They started out as a low budget production company that produced mostly schlock before expanding and creating movies with slightly higher budgets, but significantly higher profits. They re-invented the horror genre using the legends of years gone by in their films and their gothic horror films never disappointed. Their pairings were like matches made in Heaven, especially the combination of Edgar Allan Poe and Vincent Price. AIP did many different types of gothic flicks in this time, but by the 70s they changed their swing a tad with the release of Cry of the Banshee, which isnít short on rich gothic tone by any means, but did have snippets of blood and gore and lots and lots of bare breasts for the little company that could.
The film begins with a quote from Edgar Allan Poe followed by a great little animated title sequence. The quote, from ďThe BellsĒ, is about all this movie has to do with the master of horror short stories. Cry of the Banshee begins with Margaret Donaldís trial, who was the maid of a woman who was burned as a witch just a week earlier. Relics were found in her room and now her life is on the line in the same way. She denies everything to Lord Edward Whitman (Vincent Price) and is branded with an H for heretic and then stripped, whipped and shackled in the middle of the town for all to see with hopes that she will spill the beans on who else is dabbling in witchcraft. Thatís the main goal always Ė to find more.
Lord Whitmanís family is split on his actions. His son, Sean enjoys killing and stripping these witches, yet his other son, Harry and his daughter, Patricia donít really like the actions of their father. His new wife, Maureen (Hilary Heath) isnít fond of his ways either, but there is no stopping the blood-spilling tyrant. Not only does he have witches to deal with, a rabid dog has been terrorizing the villagers and killing their sheep. It can be heard howling in the night, and the citizens of the town deem it a banshee, but Lord Whitman declares that nonsense. The dog manages to find its way into the village and attacks a child before Maureenís acquaintance Roderick (Patrick Mower) rescues her, showing some sort of ability to control the animals. The hero has had an interesting life, he was found wandering in the woods as a child by Maureen and has been with her ever since.
Lord Whitman finally messed with the wrong witch, Oona, who places a curse on his entire family after he foolishly merely banishes her to the hills when he and his men discover her and her followers holding a satanic ceremony. They make a point of it to kill some of her ďchildrenĒ during the raid and Lord Whitman even challenges her powers as he rides away on his horse. Big mistake, as the Whitman family begins to drop like flies by strange means, including being attacked by a similar creature to the rabid dog. Whitman and his men had been slaughtering mostly good witches or innocent women and didnít really want any part of the evil ones until he their backs were against the wall. Faced with death, the equally evil Whitman must square off with the coven and not only that, something very strange has been going on with family friend Roderick. No one is safe.
Although thereís a fair amount of blood and a good four sets of boobs, Cry of the Banshee doesnít manage to be quite as entertaining as its fellow bloodless AIP films, before and after. Gordon Hessler shows great skill in his direction, but the script just isnít as tight and fun as other efforts. Rather than being witty and having twists and turns in the plots, Cry of the Banshee is more straight forward and really doesnít have too many shocks until the ending. The deliciously evil quotes usually spewing from the mouth of Price just arenít there, in this film his actions speak for themselves as he shows no remorse with anyoneís life but his own. That trait is no stranger to anyone who follows AIP, but a murderous tyrant just isnít as interesting as a madman or a tortured soul out for revenge. On the bright side, itís a lot of fun watching the diabolical Lord Whitman squirm when he has to face the demon out to get him.
What the film does have is atmosphere, as thereís lush forests, crypts, sixteenth century decorum and castles. And where thereís castles, thereís always gotta be some dungeons in there somewhere with all the shackles and chains you need to torture a witch or two. It follows the tradition in most witch hunt films where the people are more interested in disrobing the women and torturing them than actually worrying about them being witches. For the most part, the killings are used as entertainment to the townspeople until things get serious and the Lordís family finally begins kicking the bucket, apparently cursed many times in the past, which leads you to believe that Oona is the only real witch to ever live in the village. The killing for the sake of entertainment could be seen as a stab at horror fans, who are just as anxious to see the blood spill and boobs pop out as the people in attendance, they encourage it every step of the way. I guess in the 1500s, everyone was more into snuff films, though.
Itís not The Pit and the Pendulum, but Cry of the Banshee is a decent ride with decent acting and decent plot. AIP didnít fail, the problem is unlike so many AIP films, it is just that, decent. The best thing about AIP films is the slow build-up to the great ending, but this film manages to remain steady all the way with the violence and breasts, but along the way it loses its charm a little. The twist finale also gives the film some merit and Price more than pulls his weight, but he is more constricted than in his better films, what he says just doesnít have that impact he is known for. Itís as though they exchanged the great Vincent Price quotes for onscreen violence, which makes his character more disturbing and less interesting. With Priceís ability to deliver his lines so perfectly, itís a shame. Dialogue and acting is believable and the music is similar to most gothic horror soundtracks out there. MGMís DVD is fabulous as usual with great visual presentation and clear sound. It is paired with another Hessler film, Murders in the Rue Morgue, and even includes a 17 minute interview/documentary with him and his films being the subject. ďBorn by fire dies by fire!Ē Rent it!
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