Thursday 15 December 2016

We Don't Go Back #24: Cry of the Banshee (1970)

So, if folk horror really qualifies as a genre, the undisputed canon includes Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan's Claw and The Wicker Man. Everyone knows that. But why is Cry of the Banshee not counted on the same level as the Big Three? It's made at the same time. It has a historical setting, a witches' coven and Vincent Price playing a similar sort of chap to the one he plays in Witchfinder General. It's not really much more obscure than The Blood on Satan's Claw. But it's not on a par with the Unholy Trinity. Why is that, do you think?

Let's take a look.

(A warning: if you find discussion of on-screen rape and gendered torture and abuse distressing, you might want to not read this, because oh my, this film is grim. And not in the good way.)

Bully Boy, Sean, Edward, Burke.
Before we even start, the first two minutes of the movie are amazing, because of the opening credits, which are animated by Terry Gilliam, still in his Python era. You know those cut up animations with the giant foot and the Gumby and that? Now imagine that only with medieval woodcut devils flying out of Vincent Prince's fractured head. They are great. The actual movie... eh, it's not bad, in all the technical ways. It holds together plotwise with few real holes, the ties to real-world folklore are tenuous, but no more than they are in The Blood on Satan's Claw really, and while it has no mystery – you always know who's doing what and why – the tension centres on the danger that faces the characters, and it's pretty tense, and you want that from a horror movie. 
The way the camera keeps teeeeeasing you with the gradual opening of the bodice towards the nipple reveal (spoilers: yes, you get a nipple) is only one of the ways this scene is horrible.
In a roughly-defined Tudor England, Judge Edward Whitman (Vincent! Price!) persecutes witches, abetted by his son Sean (Stephan Chase) and his henchmen Bully Boy (Andrew McCulloch) and Burke (a very young Michael Elphick, before his face gained its trademark creases). Or does he? In fact, Whitman is pretty cynical about the whole thing. He doesn't seem even to believe in witches, really. He's doing it for profit, show and to cover up for his son Sean who is, and let us not use evasive language, a serial rapist, who forcibly has his way with pretty much every young woman he fancies and uses his power as the Judge's son to threaten terrible fates to those women who might otherwise be branded, flogged or burnt (the "I'm not a witch, I'm a wench" scene in Scream Satan Scream! is clearly an homage to one of these sequences).
I don't think the filmmakers actually intended you to see her as suffering from post-rape PTSD but...
Just in case you didn't think this could get more icky, the one woman Sean actually rapes on screen is his young, beautiful and emotionally fragile stepmother, Lady Patricia (Essy Persson), and it's small wonder Patricia behaves like she's perpetually traumatised, because she's got some pretty good reasons. 
Maureen and Roderick.
Not all of Whitman's family are awful. His daughter Maureen (Hilary Dwyer, who was the heroine of Witchfinder General) doesn't approve of what Dad does, but no one listens to her because she's a girl and she's too busy having great sex with her stepmother's chief groom, Roderick (a young Patrick Mower, still busily working in TV even today), who has an uncertain origin and an uncanny ability to calm animals.
Harry's homecoming.
Edward's younger son Harry (Carl Rigg) hates the whole torturing innocent women thing but kind of gets stuck with having to come home once he finished studying divinity or something at Cambridge. His dad and brother think he's soft. He hates the witchfinding thing too, but in a choice between family or the greater good, he reluctantly goes with family, even if, later in the movie, he fights Burke to the death rather than let him torture an innocent woman called Margaret (who turns out not to be in fact innocent).
Margaret. A character who exists to get stripped and tortured, repeatedly.
Margaret (Victoria Fairbrother) gets abused horribly every time she appears in the movie. She's branded, flogged, put in the stocks and pelted with fruit, hung up, prodded, yelled at, and stripped to the waist for the sake of her public humiliation, and here's another icky bit of this movie, women get their tops ripped off. A lot.

This is what they mean by "bodice ripper." Bodices get ripped. Nipples get displayed. Women get humiliated. And the rapey protagonists do it laughing and sneering and leering. It is nasty. And not in the good way.
Actual witches doing actual witch things.
Edward's cynicism gets the better of him when he breaks up and massacres an actual witchy coven, led by the witch Oona (Elizabeth Bergner, a star from an earlier era). He tells them to scatter for the hills, and this does makes sense, in that he doesn't actually believe they're doing anything real and he doesn't have anything to gain once his son's had his way and the blood has been spilt. Problem is, Oona is a real witch of the pins-in-dolls, summoning-Satan variety, and Oona wants revenge. Satan delivers to her Roderick, who becomes her agent, the Banshee. Now under her power. Roderick murders the Whitmans, one by one. Edward realises the deal is real too late, and by the time he's started burning and torturing actual witches along with the innocent ones, the Whitmans are dropping like flies.  
This doesn't end well for the girl on the pyre.
You may have thought a Banshee was an Irish term for a screaming phantom, but in Cry of the Banshee it amounts to a werewolf, and things get bloody as Roderick turns into a slavering hairy beast. At the end, although Edward and Maureen think they've killed Roderick, Edward discovers too late that the Banshee/Werewolf isn't susceptible to bullets, and the movie ends with Whitman trapped in a carriage with the corpses of Maureen and Henry, being driven off by Roderick, towards a no doubt horrific end.
It's sort of awesome when the lightning flashes as he appears and says he'll do Satan's bidding.
Cry of the Banshee is, as I've said, an efficient horror movie. It holds together, it's got its share of violence and gore and it motors along without ever being boring, badly acted or badly directed to a climax that works dramatically.

In fact, it's arguably a more efficient horror movie than The Blood on Satan's Claw, which is frankly a mess, but leaving aside the horrible rapey misogyny –

No, actually, let's not. The Blood on Satan's Claw has that nasty rape scene and a fair amount of salacious content (including a 17 year old girl stripping full frontal nude), but the abuse heaped upon young women in Cry of the Banshee is constant. Every single young woman with a speaking part in the movie (and several others) ends up the victim of an act of violence, rape or torture. All of them. And while a lot of the folk horror movies I've looked at make implicit comment on the suffering of the women in their stories and make the film about that (for example Stigma or The Witch, or, more pertinently, given it's exactly contemporary, Robin Redbreast) the message of much of Cry of the Banshee is "look, here's a woman getting leered at and threatened with rape, isn't that so horrid, so let's have a closer look because you might get to see some nipple... aaaand there it is!"
Lady Patricia's character arc: raped by her stepson, has a breakdown, first to die.
A lot of people (people who are not me) forgive The Blood on Satan's Claw for its ugly, ugly rape scene, and I think that's partly because The Blood on Satan's Claw is such a colossal mess of a film plotwise that this is only one of a succession of nonsensical developments, and partly because The Blood on Satan's Claw succeeds in doing something interesting and definitively new with its sound design and cinematography. I've mentioned a few times now that British genre films are often a few years behind the rest of the world stylistically, but the one good thing that you can unarguably say about The Blood on Satan's Claw is that it escapes British cinema's genre-lag.  

Cry of the Banshee doesn't. It's a 60s horror film, efficiently shot, efficiently played, efficiently written, efficiently directed. It's smart enough to know that you shouldn't see the monster for more than a split second and never in full. But it doesn't make any innovations. Hell, it only exists in the first place because Vincent Price was a hit the last time he played a witch-hunter.
The bit where he figures out, two fatalities too late, it's actual witchcraft.
Genre cinema is so derivative in general that when anyone does something interesting with the form, it's a big deal (which is in my opinion why The Blood on Satan's Claw is so beloved, because people sure as hell don't love it for the script). But Cry of the Banshee, unlike Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan's Claw, the films it's most like, does nothing with the form other than give you a well-executed variation. And because it's nothing more than a well-executed horror film, it doesn't have any heart in it; and because it has no real heart, it crosses the line into misogyny and exploitation, and stays there, without anything to mitigate that.

So all you get is a film that has no serious technical flaws but which is nonetheless horrible to watch because of how icky and rapey it is.