Friday 22 June 2012

Gothic Horror Round-Up II:
Cry of the Banshee
(Gordon Hessler, 1970)

And so from the sublime to the ridiculous, as 1970’s ‘Cry of the Banshee’ sees AIP’s long-running series of Vincent Price-led gothics finally spluttering to a halt, with a conclusion as ill-starred as any vengeful witch could’ve hoped for.

Allegedly annoyed that AIP had denied them the preparation time needed for a trip to Scotland to research ancient celtic folklore or somesuch, screenwriter Christopher Wicking and director Gordon Hessler apparently decided to show them the error of their ways by throwing together a screenplay based on nothing whatsoever, reworking Tim Kelly’s initial draft into a hackneyed mess of nonsense set in some non-specific part of 16th century England, where cruel local magistrate Edward Whitman lords it over both the local populace and his own family, in a tepid amalgamation of Price’s far more memorable roles in ‘Witchfinder General’ and ‘Masque of the Red Death’.

Anyone coming to this film hoping to learn a thing or two about banshees and what they get up to will be soundly disappointed, as the fascinating mythology pertaining to said creatures is entirely ignored, leaving us with nothing but some vague were-creature and one of the most annoyingly inconsistent pre-christian witch cults in cinema history to function as thorns in Price’s side.

Hey, wait a minute, pre-xtian witch cults, you say? That sounds like some pretty fun stuff! Yeah, that’s what I thought too, but sadly this concept is handled just as poorly as the banshee stuff, with the sinister, forest-dwelling cult here taking the form of a bunch of obnoxious first-year drama students, prancing about in togas and night-gowns, performing tedious hippie era ‘self-actualisation’ exercises. Head witch Oona, as portrayed by veteran stage and screen actress Elizabeth Bergner, must merit some sort of award as “most irritating witch of all time”, narrowly beating Lila Zaborin from ‘Blood Orgy of the She-Devils’ to the prize as she gurns away under an unkempt fright-wig, rolling her eyes and vocalising her painfully over-enunciated declamations in a voice that’s sort of half Irish, half Romany, and all ‘drunken am-dram auntie’.

The filmmakers seem to have tried to incorporate some belated ‘social commentary’ into this scenario, characterising the cultists as peace-loving drop-outs being persecuted by the cruel and repressive authorities. In fact Wicking is even on record as saying that he meant Price’s persecution of the cultists to remind viewers of Mayor Daley’s crushing of dissent at the ’68 Democratic Convention, if you can believe that. Like most elements of the film through, the execution of this idea too confused and half-arsed to really amount to much.

“Oona is good, Oona heals, Oona is love”, her followers chant, but if these cultists are supposed to be benign and sympathetic figures, why do we also see them praising Satan, conjuring up curses at the drop of a hat, orchestrating the deaths of people who weren’t even remotely to blame for their persecution, and basically doing everything that Vince’s ‘repressive’ regime accuses them of..? Exploiting all the bad karma of Satanism without any of the accompanying cool stuff and gnarly rites, Oona’s cult are just about the most charmless gang of woodland devil worshippers you could ever have the misfortune to encounter.

As regular readers will know, I absolutely loved Hessler and Wicking’s Scream & Scream Again, which they made immediately prior to starting work on ‘..Banshee’. And whilst I suppose a dose of ‘Scream..’s errant pacing and unhinged randomness can be felt in ‘..Banshee’ to a certain extent, the duo’s approach sadly achieves an altogether more negative result here, as a general lack of any of the novelty, enthusiasm or imagination that made the earlier film so unique leaves us with a movie that, beyond just feeling a bit pointless, leaves a bad taste in the mouth in just about every respect.

First and foremost, the film spends much of its run-time exhibiting a distinctly unhealthy strain of cruelty and misogyny that quickly outstays its welcome. If Michael Reeves’ ‘Witchfinder General’ succeeded in introducing a new level of grim realism into period horror films at the dawn of the ‘70s, the makers of ‘..Banshee’ certainly take full advantage of these developments. Unfortunately though, they seem to have missed the point of Reeves’ film entirely, using the ground gained by their predecessor simply as an excuse to fill their own film with as much sleaze and unpleasantness as thought they could get away with.

Throughout the film, breasts are exposed with monotonous regularity, inevitably accompanied by torture, beatings and sexual assault, as the kind of scenes that were powerful and upsetting in ‘Witchfinder..’ are reiterated as pure, mindless exploitation, dwelt upon in a way that, whilst ostensibly less explicit than European efforts like 1971’s ‘Mark of the Devil’, somehow comes across as even more distasteful. In spite – or perhaps because of - its hammy, old fashioned atmosphere, I think ‘..Banshee’ actually stands out as one of the rapiest, most cynically nasty British horror films of the ‘70s (which is saying something, considering the excesses that were to come later in the decade).

Of all the female cast, only Hilary Dwyer (from ‘Witchfinder..’) as Price’s daughter emerges with her dignity intact, and even she has to face up to the challenge of some absolutely senseless dialogue, the script demanding that her character suddenly deliver lines like “it’s as though we were all seeds of evil”, apropos of nothing. It’s stuff like that that dooms most of the performances in this movie, as actors good, bad and indifferent all seem to flounder with the material they’ve been handed. Bergner, despite her storied career, is just plain awful, Swedish actress Essy Persson does the best she can with a thankless role as Price’s much-abused wife, and it’s very sad see the once great Welsh actor Hugh Griffiths wasted (in both senses of the word) as a comic relief gravedigger.

Cheap, ‘who-cares-anyway’ production decisions and highly variable cinematography also take their toll, as exemplified by the face-slappingly awful moment in which two characters casually look out of a castle window at night before their POV immediately cuts to some completely unmatched daylight stock footage of wolves roaming through some woodland. And by the time Persson finds herself being menaced by a disembodied halloween werewolf claw, any hope that this movie might redeem itself has faded pretty much to zero, with not even the ever-reliable Vincent Price able to summon up enough energy to salvage proceedings.

By this stage, Price was apparently already unhappy with the declining quality of the films AIP were offering him, and the half-hearted sleaze and myriad absurdities of ‘..Banshee’ can scarcely have done much to improve his mood. Of course, Price never really gives a ‘bad’ performance, but he’s clearly finding it hard to hide his disgruntlement here, knocking out passages of dialogue that were clearly written with his dulcet tones in mind as quickly as he can before stalking dejectedly off-screen. And it’s hard to blame him really; prior to the upswing his career took in the early ‘70s thanks to such quality vehicles as ‘The Abominable Dr. Phibes’ and ‘Theatre of Blood’, it’s easy to imagine him being a bit worried about where he was headed at this point, perhaps seeing himself descending the same slippery slope toward demeaning trash that had claimed so many aging horror stars before him.

So… yeah. As you might have gathered, I really didn’t like this one much. In the ‘plus’ column, we’ve at least got a terrific, Terry Gilliam-designed animated credits sequence, and a fine, foreboding score by Wilfred Josephs. Some of the woodland scenes are nicely photographed, capturing at least a hint of the mossy, verdant atmospherics found in the infinitely superior ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’. Oh, and the ending is quite nicely executed in a gleeful, twist-in-the-tail kinda way.

But seriously, that’s about all I’m getting here in terms of positives.

I suppose I shouldn’t be that hard on ‘..Banshee’. In the grander scheme of things it’s still perfectly watchable, and it at least tries to explore some interesting ideas, even if it doesn’t get very far with them. In fact, if this was some zero budget regional independent movie from the same era, you’d probably rank it as a good effort. But as a professional production with a wealth of talent and experience behind it, coming at the tail end of a series that had produced almost a dozen far better (and far more *likeable*) movies by this point, it seems like a ropey, embarrassing mess, and a sad way to send the Price/Poe films to their unquiet grave.

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