‘Edgar Allan Poe probes new depths of terror!’
Cry of the Banshee is a 1970 British horror film about a cruel magistrate who runs afoul of a witch who conjures a banshee to kill him.
Directed and executive produced by Gordon Hessler (KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park; Scream Pretty Peggy; Murders in the Rue Morgue; The Oblong Box, Scream and Scream Again) from a screenplay written by Tim Kelly which was reworked by Christopher Wicking (To the Devil a Daughter) at Hessler’s behest and was only vaguely based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. Produced by Louis M. Heyward.
The animated opening credits were created by future director Terry Gilliam, of the Monty Python team.
The original soundtrack score was composed by Wilfred Josephs (Fanatic, The Deadly Bees, Dark Places) and conducted by Philip Martell. However, the US version was rescored by Les Baxter.
The American International Pictures (AIP) production stars Vincent Price, Essy Persson, Hugh Griffith (The Abominable Doctor Phibes; Craze; Legend of the Werewolf), Patrick Mower (The Devil Rides Out; Incense for the Damned), Hilary Dwyer (Witchfinder General; The Oblong Box), Carl Rigg, Stephan Chase, Marshall Jones, Andrew McCulloch, Michael Elphick, Pamela Farbrother, Quinn O’Hara, Jan Rossini, Sally Geeson and Robert Hutton.
” …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).” 2,500 Movies Challenge
“Cry of the Banshee is quite entertaining as a sleazy campfest: Price has a blast hamming it up, the script delivers some bit of salaciousness or brutality every few minutes and Hessler directs the proceedings with more vigor than they probably deserve. John Coquillon’s photography is quite lovely and Terry Gilliam’s animated titles get things off to a suitably campy start. In short, Cry of the Banshee might be trash but its agreeable, energetic trash.” All Movie
“Only in the location scenes does Hessler create a sense of haunting evil. Elsewhere, the film exploits whatever opportunities for violence provided by its theme: women are stripped, one is burnt alive, a head is blown off, there is a massacre, and so on.’ The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror
“While nowhere near as accomplished or compelling as its AIP-produced Gothic horror peers, Banshee still unfurls as an entertaining slice of occult-tinged hokum, with Mr. Price doing what he does best and some creepily staged stalking sequences livening up the plodding pace and dialogue-heavy scenes.” Behind the Couch
” … it isn’t needlessly sadistic. Horror, fantasy and exploitation are well balanced. There are many surprises, as the scenes do not follow a conventional story arc. The witches are portrayed like regular people, some of them good and others bad. It’s hard to tell who to root for.” David Elroy Goldweber, Claws & Saucers
” … confused yarn that fails to develop its interesting premise.” John Elliot, Elliot’s Guide to Films on Video
” … with the 1970s on the horizon, no opportunity is passed up for exposing women’s breasts. This would be all right in itself, but the women always seem to be undergoing some abuse at the time…” Jonathan Rigby, English Gothic
“Cry of the Banshee suffers from needlessly obtuse storytelling that can be attributed to aimless scripting and messy editing. The movie’s also quite ugly in its treatment of women since it seems as if some accused witch and/or innocent serving wench is having her clothes ripped open every ten minutes […] Nonetheless, Price contributes his usual robust work, the production design is acceptably immersive.” Every ’70s Movie
“Handsome sets and costumes give the film a certain glamour that helps to obscure its weaknesses […] Most importantly, though, there is Price, and although he doesn’t get as much to do as in some of his other roles, he effortlessly commands attention, making every scene in which he appears his own.” Eye for Film
” …there’s a lot of sadistic characters. Even Price’s character is woefully underdeveloped, though he does his best to fight this. It also doesn’t help that with a few exceptions (Price, Elisabeth Bergner, Marshall Jones and Hugh Griffith), the acting is pretty subpar. And (unless I’m very much mistaken) I really think they should have gotten a real dog to do the barking for the mad dog in the movie…” Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings
“The end has a nice amount of comeuppance to it, when it seems that Whitman’s may have won against the forces of evil there’s a good twist with a stinging finale as Whitman visits a cemetery to verify the death of the demon summoned to kill his clan, you might find yourself a bit bored at times by this one, truly it has some pacing problems, but just hang in there for the finale, which saves this one on the last leg.” McBastard’s Mausoleum
“The unconvincing plot fades away into a uniform drudgery and is overburdened with too many characters. The witchcraft seems an odd miscegenation of voodoo and classical Celtic mythology. Nothing terribly interesting happens throughout. The saving grace of the film almost comes in the twist ending, which is directed with such fervidly that it nearly makes the preceding proceedings worthwhile.” Moria
” … like a parody of Witchfinder General with absolutely none of the morality or conviction (or production values). Listlessly staged, with Price giving a bland auto-pilot performance … the misogynist cruelty here is paraded for our pleasure in a way that reeks of artifice.” David Pirie, A New Heritage of Horror
” …Hessler’s direction is decent […] Price is solid in the lead and while this one will no doubt always live in Witchfinder General’s shadow, it gives the actor some good material to work with and features pretty solid location photography. A few of the effects show the film’s modest budget but overall the film is quite well done.” Rock! Shock! Pop!
“Technically, it’s a good-looking affair, thanks to the gorgeous countryside photography by Witchfinder General cinematographer John Coquillion and the real-life location setting […] But Price, who was nearing the end of his contract with AIP at the time, has few moments in which to breathe malevolent life into his dastardly lord of the manor, and that’s the fault of the botched script…” The Spooky Isles
“This generally uninteresting terror flick is well directed by genre regular Hessler, but it lacks any sense of vitality in its characters (doing her best Ophelia, Lady Patricia is particularly irritating). To make matters worse, it’s marred by a slipshod rhythm of urgency undermined by no real suspense. Only the ending musters any gusto.” The Terror Trap
“Vincent Price is given little to do here, other than act unpleasant, but his presence is always welcome. The production is “well-mounted” due in no small part due to the use of opulent costumes which were leftover from the big-budget historical film Anne of the Thousand Days.” Gary A. Smith, Uneasy Dreams book
Plot (contains spoilers):
Elizabethan England. Lord Edward Whitman, a wicked magistrate, presides over the trial of a young woman. Ruling that she is a witch, he has her branded, whipped through the streets, then placed in the village stocks.
That night, Whitman hosts a feast at his home as his henchmen search the countryside for the killers of a sheep. Two poor teenagers are pulled into the hall. A burst of wolf-like howling from outside the walls warns that they may be “devil-marked”. Both are killed in an ensuing struggle. Whitman’s wife, Lady Patricia, calls Whitman a murderer for this. When Whitman’s oldest son, Sean, rapes Lady Patricia, Whitman decides he wants to “clean up” the witches in the area.
Assisted by Sean, Whitman goes hunting in the hills for witches. His armed posse breaks up what is apparently meant to be a witches’ Black Sabbath. He kills several of them and tells the rest to scatter to the hills and never return. This angers the leader of the coven, Oona.
To get revenge on the Whitman family, Oona summons a demonic spirit to destroy the family. Unfortunately, the spirit takes possession of the loyal servant, Roderick, with whom Maureen Whitman has been in love for years. Roderick begins to systematically kill off members of the Whitman family, including Sean and Lady Patricia.
Eventually, Harry, Whitman’s son from Cambridge, and a priest named Father Tom discover Oona and her coven conjuring the death of Maureen. They kill Oona and her coven, and Roderick, who was attacking Maureen, breaks off and leaves her. However, he soon returns and attacks Whitman. Maureen shoots the demon in the head, apparently killing him.
Exhilarated that the curse is over, Whitman plans to leave the house by coach with his remaining children. On the way, he stops at the cemetery so he can reassure himself Roderick is dead. To his horror, he finds the coffin empty. Shocked, Whitman hurries back to the carriage.
Once inside, he finds Maureen and Harry dead. It is revealed that his driver, Bully Boy, was killed by Roderick, who is now driving the coach. The film ends with Whitman screeching his driver’s name in terror as the coach heads for parts unknown.
The US theatrical release featured the ‘GP’ rated print which changed Terry Gilliam’s opening animated credits to still ones, replaced Wilfred Josephs’ music score with one by Les Baxter – and was cut to remove all footage of topless nudity and to tone down assorted whippings and assault scenes. This print was also used for the original UK cinema release in 1970.
The 1988 UK Guild video release featured the same heavily edited print as the US and UK cinema ones. Fortunately, all DVD releases feature the full uncut version, which also restores the original Wilfred Josephs music score.
Buy DVD: Amazon.co.uk
Cast and characters:
Vincent Price … Lord Edward Whitman
Essy Persson … Lady Patricia Whitman
Hilary Dwyer … Maureen Whitman
Carl Rigg … Harry Whitman
Stephan Chase … Sean Whitman
Marshall Jones … Father Tom
Andrew McCulloch … Bully Boy
Michael Elphick … Burke
Pamela Moiseiwitsch … Maid
Joyce Mandre … Party Guest
Robert Hutton … Party Guest
Guy Deghy … Party Guest
Elizabeth Bergner … Oona
Patrick Mower … Roderick
Pamela Fairbrother … Margaret Donald
Quinn O’Hara … Maggie – Witch
Jane Deady … Naked Girl
Hugh Griffith … Mickey
Jan Rossini … Bess
Sally Geeson … Sarah
Godfrey James … Head Villager
Gertan Klauber … Tavern Keeper
Peter Benson … Brander
Richard Everett … Timothy
Louis Selwyn … Apprentice
Micky Baker … Rider (as Mickey Baker)
Carol Desmond … Girl
Ann Barrass … Elga
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Related: Burn, Witch, Burn! Witchfinders in Horror Cinema – article
British punk-goth rock band Siouxsie Sioux and Steven Severin named themselves Siouxsie and the Banshees in September 1976 after seeing the film on TV.