When horror fans talk about American International Pictures’ classic Poe film adaptations, they’re mainly thinking of the films that Roger Corman made for during the first half of the ’60s. However, there is also a second, briefer cycle of Poe films from the same studio that you could call “faux-Poe” films that were produced during the late ’60s and early ’70s. For example, The Witchfinder General had no Poe influence in its storyline but it was retitled The Conquerer Worm for U.S. audiences, with a title sequence that added a snippet of the Poe poem that gives it its title.
Cry Of The Banshee was another faux-Poe outing that used the same tactics: the storyline has precious little to do with the author beyond the use of a few stanzas of the Poe poem, “The Bells.” It tends to have a poor reputation with horror critics, who often dismiss it as A.I.P. squeezing the last few dollars out of a dying trend. That said, the resulting film actually owes more to The Witchfinder General – and it brings plenty of style and a dash of subversive content that make it better than your average exploitative quickie.
The film is set in a small English village in thrall to the cruelty of Edward Whitman (Price), the resident witchfinder who freely condemns and tortures anyone foolish enough to appear mildly eccentric. Even when his troubled wife Patricia (Essy Persson) and his independent-minded daughter Maureen (Hilary Dwyer) protest, Whitman still does as he pleases. However, he goes too far when he kills a few members of a coven belonging to a witch named Oona (Elizabeth Bergstrom). She places a curse on Whitman and soon several people are being ripped apart by a mystery creature, prefaced by the titular event.
Cry Of The Banshee is first and foremost an exploitation film: the presence of Price and his characterization deliberately copy The Witchfinder General but this film really owes more to the most famous Witchfinder knockoff, Mark Of The Devil. The script, hastily rewritten by Christopher Wicking, barely holds together but it never fails to deliver the goods. Like Mark, Cry Of The Banshee is a cavalcade of sadism: some act of violence or a woman having her blouse ripped open occurs every five minutes. It’s a gleefully vicious affair from the opening moments to its downer ending: it’s not as overtly sleazy as other ’70s-era films would be but it creates an atmosphere of decadence and menace that is heady stuff.
That said, a closer look at Cry Of The Banshee reveals some interesting elements beneath all the skin and brutality. Wicking’s script is heavily critical of authority, portraying them as decadent hypocrites, and the battle between royals and pagans reflects the social conflict in the air around the world during 1970. He also creates an interesting heroine in Maureen, who openly questions the religion of her era and beds down with whoever she pleases. Hessler directs the mayhem with an inspired and kinetic approach, aided by lush cinematography from John Coquillon that makes excellent use of handheld camerawork.
As usual, Price adds some appropriately regal bluster to the proceedings: he’d played this kind of role several times over but he does it with a sense of conviction that makes it compelling. He also gets nice support from Dwyer as well as Persson, who brings a brooding intensity to her psychologically fragile character. Also, keep an eye out for Hugh Griffith, who adds some gallows wit to the proceedings as a graverobber.
In short, Cry Of The Banshee brings a surprising amount of panache to its faux-Poe antics. It won’t knock any of the Corman-helmed Poe adaptations off their perch but it offers decadent pleasures of its own unique variety.