Regular readers will know that I’m a sucker for Hammer horror, and the wealth of imitators that attempted to cash-in on the classic horror boom back in the 1950s to 1970’s. So when I sighted Gordon Hessler’s rarely-spotted Cry of the Banshee, I was hoping for another go-round of drawing-room politeness, unseen horror and British character actors drinking tea. But there’s two versions of Cry of the Banshee, and much as the banshee cries to warn, it’s worth taking care about which one you choose, since the uncut version is pretty strong meat.
‘I’ll banish it!’ says Lord Edward Whitman (Vincent Price) of the banshee of the title, but his banal, baseless attempts at banshee banishment fall short. Although technically, there’s actually no banshee in this film, the monster here is a sidhe, an Irish/Scottish term which is where the Sith of the Star Wars universe is derived from. Essentially it’s somewhere between a zombie slave and a witches familiar, played by a youthful Patrick Mower and under the command of grand high witch Oona, played by Oscar-nominated actress Elisabeth Bergner. She seeks revenge on Whitman for breaking up her coven, and the lines are drawn between The Establishment and the Druids (the credits helpfully divide the cast into the two groups).
This is all pretty good stuff, an original story with a game cast and a fresh folklore to explore. Unfortunately, the full version is blighted by a determination to undress the female cast, through whippings, assaults and rape; there’s literally five sexual assaults before the half hour mark. Screenwriter Christopher Wicking apparently travelled to Scotland to research the history of witchcraft, and there’s some evidence of his findings here, notably that for once, the witches are the goodies and the white male establishment the baddies. But even with its heart in the right place, the emphasis on women’s clothes being ripped off by predatory men is distasteful and gratuitous.
A favourite of Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie, Cry of the Banshee has plenty of points of interest, although for once, the cut version might be preferable. The US print misses out the remarkable credits sequence by Terry Gilliam, pre-Python; given the witch trials, strolling balladeers and other familiar tropes, it seems a given that the Python team must have seen this film before embarking on their grail quest.