Saturday, February 20, 2016

#2,014. Cry of the Banshee (1970)

Directed By: Gordon Hessler

Starring: Vincent Price, Essy Persson, Hilary Heath

Tag line: "Edgar Allan Poe probes new depths of TERROR!"

Trivia: The title sequence was designed and animated by Terry Gilliam

Sir Edward Whitman (Vincent Price), the corrupt magistrate of a 16th-century English town, regularly accuses young women of witchcraft, a “crime” that is punishable by death. Aided by his equally slimy son Sean (Stephen Chase), Lord Edward dishes out his own unique brand of justice, and in so doing alienates his second wife Patricia (Essy Persson) and his daughter Maureen (Hilary Heath), both of whom consider him a monster. Not even the recent return of son Harry (Carl Rigg), who had been away at school, can soften Sir Edward’s demeanor. 

Things take an unexpected turn, however, when Sir Edward, Sean, and a group of others attack a coven of witches led by the mysterious Oona (Elizabeth Bergner), killing several in the process. Vowing to take revenge, Oona asks the Dark Lord to send her an instrument of evil, one who will destroy not only Sir Edward, but his entire family as well. To add insult to injury, the killer sent to finish them off is someone the Whitmans have known for years!

As witch hunter movies go, director Gordon Hessler’s Cry of the Banshee falls well short of the mark. That’s not to say it’s a complete dud; Price is predictably solid as the egomaniacal patriarch of the Whitman clan, and Stephen Chase, who plays Sir Edward’s son Sean, is just as loathsome as his old man (like all good villains, you hope that this father-son duo will get theirs before the movie is over). There are some good scenes as well, including the opening, when Sir Edward sentences young Margaret Donald (Pamela Farbrother) to be flogged as she’s dragged through the streets (even better is a sequence in which Sean finds himself all alone in a church courtyard, not realizing that the animalistic killer is lurking nearby).

Unfortunately, in the case of Cry of the Banshee, the sum of its parts is much better than the movie as a whole. Unlike other witch hunter films of this period, including Mark of the Devil and Price’s own The Witchfinder General, the horror of accusing innocent people of witchcraft, then sending them to their doom is never fully explored (most of the women suspected of sorcery in this film are, in fact, actual witches). And because it’s established early on that most of the Whitmans are total bastards, the movie isn’t particularly suspenseful (it’s not a matter of “if” they’ll get their comeuppance, but “when”). Perhaps most disappointing of all is the “creature” sent by Oona to wreak havoc on Sir Edward and his brood (the identity of the killer was a decent enough twist, but the make-up effects that transformed him into a rabid beast were woefully ineffective).

It isn’t often that a film starring the incomparable Vincent Price will leave me cold, but alas, that’s exactly what Cry of the Banshee did.

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