Cry of the Banshee (1970) makes no qualms as to what its aims are. Looking at its promotional poster, it would be natural to associate it with Roger Corman’s Poe films; it’s emblazoned with Edgar Allen Poe references, its main star is Vincent Price and its design is a technocolour nightmare. The film itself is about as far from Corman’s dreamlike fantasies as possible in terms of period horror and beneath its surface lies a haphazard melting pot of references and ideas that would be taken on later in much bigger and successful horror films of the era.
In simplistic terms, Gordon Hessler has created a very typical British folk horror. For some time now, I have been trying to define and pin point what exactly folk horror actually is in a number of articles which will hopefully eventually make up a book. It’s a surprisingly complex and wavering generalisation to call a film very definitely a folk horror but for now and here in this article, the meaning is very simple one; a British horror film that uses period tradition and isolated communities to bring out the horror from both within the people and from within the land.
From its opening scene, the film references and in some ways parodies the big folk horror of the day as well as foreseeing the next big themes of the sub-genres most successful films. From Price’s uttering of the first line “H is for heretic!” in his timeless, camp delivery, Witchfinder General (1968) is at the forefront of any viewer who has seen Michael Reeves’ gritty and unflinching film. Price seems to be playing the same Hopkins like character, the head of town trying to stamp out witchcraft and ungodly practices at any cost.
Unlike Reeves’ film though, Cry of the Banshee plays around more with the material. Whereas there is no escape from the evil born of superstition, there is far more fun to be had within Cry of the Banshee’s still quite grim world. Whether the humour is intended or not is really besides the point; a rich vein of fun, camp frivolity is to be found in the film and between the scenes of women having their clothes torn off my ravaging men, are scenes with hilariously hammy minor characters straight from Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975).
There’s no doubt that this had some influence on the Python film. Its muddy towns of absurd accusations and yokel folk no doubt made an impression on Terry Gilliam who designed Cry of the Banshee’s marvellous opening titles. If all this talk of humour is sounding a bit twee for a horror, it must be said that the film’s treatment of women is just as, if not more disturbing than Witchfinder General. This is probably the film’s most uncomfortable aspect and it’s actually difficult to see whether Hessler was trying to evoke the era or simply play into the horror cliché of having women being ravaged and tortured.
The narrative only properly kicks off after the breaking up of a heathen ceremony. The supposed banshee of the film is summoned after Price’s Lord Whitman sends his troops in to kill most of the rabble, leaving their leader Una to remember the consequences for sacrilege. It’s flimsy to say the least with characters still trying to sort out minor issues from scenes far back near the film’s start The initial presence of a rabid dog which was said to have taken a farmers sheep makes little sense other than it being coincidental to the “banshee’s” arrival half an hour later and it is things like this that perhaps explain why the film is rarely talked about when discussing the genre. One minute it’ll focus on a quite random love story while the next it’ll attempt a vague family drama, all while trying to be horrific with curses, monsters, witchcraft, torture and human evil.
To decry the film for this though misses the point. Within Cry of the Banshee can be found the groundings of what most people know as folk horror. The witchcraft elements will of course be attributed to Reeves’ film but there are more aspects in Cry of the Banshee that would crop up in later films. The worship aspects and group gestalts would be put to more dramatic and disturbing effects in Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971); a film that similarly embraces the reality of the supernatural to explain away its evils. However the purely humanistic evils found in Banshee can be seen in the sub-genre’s poster boy; The Wicker Man (1973). There’s little visually to tie in but there’s no doubt that Cry of the Banshee can be seen to be a step closer to the ultimate in folk horror madness.
Some of the performances may be colourful but the film’s horror is still strong. However the better moments come from the human evils rather than the supernatural ones. The banshee creature bares little on scenes of torture and burning which have a documentary shake to them and are just as effective as Reeves’ prolonged agonies. Coupled with some Hammer like pulp and Price’s usual villainy, a film is left that is enjoyable, flawed and surprisingly influential.