Cry of the Banshee (1970)

Cry of the Banshee

Cry of the Banshee (1970) opens with a quote from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells,” and his name was featured prominently in the advertising, despite the fact that the film is not an adaptation of Poe at all – but this was business as usual for American International Pictures. Call it Poesploitation. Gordon Hessler (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad), who worked with Alfred Hitchcock on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, was assigned to direct after proving himself to AIP with the box office successes of The Oblong Box (1969) and Scream and Scream Again (1970). As with those films, Hessler was teamed with star Vincent Price, and he brought along his favored screenwriter, Christopher Wicking, to help revise the original screenplay by Tim Kelly (Sugar Hill). (Wicking would soon make his mark in the world of Hammer horror, with Demons of the Mind, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, and To the Devil a Daughter.) The story had plenty of stock elements of late 60’s/early 70’s Gothic horror: sadistic tortures and executions of women accused of being witches; Satanism; a hypocritical ruling class; young love in rebellion; and of course gratuitous nudity and violence. Hessler’s cut of the film was censored in-house; AIP brought it down to a “GP” and removed the (abundant) female nudity, and the edits were so severe that a new score was needed, with Les Baxter (The Dunwich Horror) replacing Wilfred Josephs (The Deadly Bees). Scream! Factory’s The Vincent Price Collection III, released earlier this year, includes both cuts of the film, along with Price’s Master of the World (1961), Tower of London (1962), Diary of a Madman (1963), and the TV special “An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe” (1970). Cry of the Banshee, a minor film in Price’s filmography, receives the best treatment it’s likely to ever get.

Sean Whitman (Stephan Chase), the Magistrate's son, interrogates Maggie (Quinn O'Hara), caught with witch's charms.

Sean Whitman (Stephan Chase), the Magistrate’s son, interrogates Maggie (Quinn O’Hara), caught with witch’s charms.

Price plays Lord Edward Whitman, the Magistrate of a small English village in the 16th century, who is obsessed with maintaining authority over his subjects. One of his chief means of exercising power is exposing witches in and around his village, drawing a direct parallel between this character and Price’s revelatory performance as Matthew Hopkins in Michael Reeves’ 1968 classic The Witchfinder General (part of the out-of-print The Vincent Price Collection Volume I). This is obviously the lesser film, influenced by Witchfinder but taking the premise in a slightly different direction. In fact, the film might bear more in common with Twins of Evil (1971) or The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) – for here Price’s self-righteous witchhunting finds itself up against a real supernatural force, one that preys upon the young and the “heathen.” As with those films, there is a clear line drawn between the older generation and the younger, forcing a parallel between Merrie Olde England and clashes with the 60’s counterculture. (The ending credits identify members of the Whitman House as “The Establishment.”) The real witches of Cry of the Banshee live out in the woods, enacting druidic rites in white robes and with garlands in their hair. It’s only when Price discovers their coven and brutally slaughters most of their members – his men throw a net over some of the young witches and hack away at them with axes, in one of the film’s most shocking scenes – that the coven leader, Oona (Elisabeth Bergner, The Rise of Catherine the Great), turns to Satan for vengeance. “Kill, kill, kill!” becomes the new chant of the young witches. Meanwhile, Price’s Lord Whitman tries to maintain order not just in his village, but in his own household: his latest wife, Patricia (Essy Persson of Radley Metzger’s Therese and Isabelle), is slowly succumbing to depression and madness as she witnesses her husband’s murderous impulses and is even raped by her own stepson, Sean (Stephan Chase, Macbeth); and his daughter, Maureen (Hilary Dwyer, Witchfinder General), is having an affair with a servant, Roderick (Patrick Mower, The Devil Rides Out), who possesses a supernatural power over animals. A mad dog appears to be on the loose, slaughtering sheep, but the villagers believe the ubiquitous howl to be that of a banshee, who has cursed the family of Whitman. This plot is convoluted.

Lobby card

Lobby card

So convoluted, in fact, that – in watching the director’s cut – when I reached the almost halfway point in the film in which Oona invokes Satan for vengeance against the Whitman family, I wrote down: Oona curses his house (although everyone already though it was cursed, so…shouldn’t this scene have come earlier?). Indeed, in the original theatrical version (included on the disc), the film opens with this scene, but Wicking and Hessler preferred it come later, after we get to know the Whitman clan. In the director’s cut, prominence is placed on Lord Whitman’s Witchfinder General-esque tactics against those he deems witches, so that by the time we reach his massacre of the witches in the woods, we have no room for doubt that the fall of Lord Whitman’s household will be his own doing. But given that the banshee element is introduced at the very start of the film, it is unclear just what purpose the banshee ultimately served; that early on, Oona had not yet cursed the Whitmans. Was the banshee truly just a mad dog, then, and is all that Gothic atmosphere wasted on a red herring? Oona’s agent of vengeance granted by Satan is Roderick, marked by an occult medallion he wears around his neck. In the director’s cut, Roderick’s medallion is introduced too soon; he should be shown with this after Satan brings Roderick forward as the avenger, since there seems to be a direct link between the medallion and his supernatural nature. The fact that his appearance in Oona’s temple in the woods is edited to come right before he’s shown back in bed, tormented by a nightmare, is even more confusing: was the other Roderick just an apparition? Are there two Rodericks? Eventually, Cry of the Banshee will resolve itself into a much more simplistic werewolf story, with Roderick transforming into a hairy wolf-like monster before our eyes (sort of – the makeup is so cheap that Hessler wisely decides to hide it in shadows as much as possible). On the whole, the script suffers from too much rewriting and not enough. It’s crowded with plot elements and characters, and doesn’t wrangle them all coherently.

Vincent Price as Lord Edward Whitman.

Vincent Price as Lord Edward Whitman.

This is not to say there aren’t really strong ideas here, the most evocative of which is Price lording over his hall and servants, engaging in all sorts of debaucheries, interrupted occasionally by the unnerving banshee call from outside – an intangible threat that can’t be held at bay forever. This evokes Roger Corman’s masterful The Masque of the Red Death (1964). And the final scene, in which Price realizes that he hasn’t triumphed over his supernatural assassin after all, is effectively chilling. But something’s off about Cry of the Banshee, whether it’s the cluttered narrative (there are enough characters to support a Shakespearean drama, but not all of them are important), the fact that almost all the nudity comes about as a result of some kind of sexual assault (including one with incestuous overtones), or the inconsistent performances (Essy Persson seems to be struggling the most). Nonetheless, the film, in its censored theatrical release, was a hit. Perhaps it was enough to just throw out the words “Poe” and “Price.” One clear advantage that the director’s cut has over the theatrical is to see the original opening credits, which feature cut-out animation from none other than Terry Gilliam, who was still working on Monty Python’s Flying Circus at the time. His credits are eerie, fun, grotesque, and surreal – what Cry of the Banshee might have been, with just a little more time, imagination, and care.

Cry of the Banshee poster

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Isle of the Dead (1945)

Isle of the Dead

An often overlooked entry in the renowned Val Lewton cycle of atmospheric chillers for RKO, Isle of the Dead (1945) is one of three films Lewton made with Boris Karloff, who, typecast despite his diverse acting talents, was a fugitive from Universal’s fun yet increasingly juvenile monster mashes. With Lewton he had an opportunity to showcase his acting chops free of monster makeup or a mad scientist’s white coat. Where else but in Lewton’s hands could Karloff play such a complicated character as Nikolas Pherides, a Greek general during the 1912 Balkan Wars. Nickname the “Watchdog,” his grim, unsympathetic style is on display at the start of the film, commanding an officer to shoot himself for the crime of allowing one of his units to arrive to the battlefield late. But as we get to know General Pherides through the eyes of audience surrogate Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer, The Canterville Ghost), an American reporter, we begin to see him as something of a broken man, just trying to do right by his particular sense of nationalism and justice. Pherides decides to visit the crypt of his wife on a nearby island, and Davis joins him, but they find the tomb violated, the body destroyed. A siren-like voice whispers through the trees and stark rocks, and following it, the two discover an Old Dark House and a gathering of strangers. An old woman in the home, Madame Kyra (Helene Thimig, Cloak and Dagger), warns that there is a vorvolaka on the loose, the Greek equivalent of a vampire – pointing the finger at a young woman named Thea (Ellen Drew, Christmas in July), whose beauty seems to flourish while a plague spreads throughout the house.

A statue of the three-headed dog of the Underworld, Cerberus, overlooks the pier on the Isle of the Dead.

A statue of the three-headed dog of the Underworld, Cerberus, overlooks the pier on the Isle of the Dead.

Isle of the Dead was directed by Mark Robson, who also directed for producer Lewton The Ghost Ship (1943), Youth Runs Wild (1944), and two genuine horror masterpieces, The Seventh Victim (1943) and Bedlam (1946, with Karloff). Post-Lewton, Robson would go on to a robust directing career: his credits include Peyton Place (1957), The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), From the Terrace (1960), Von Ryan’s Express (1965), Valley of the Dolls (1967), and Earthquake (1974), among many others. Robson was adept at creating the suffocatingly macabre atmosphere that Lewton demanded – as with The Seventh Victim, Isle of the Dead and its cast of characters are obsessed with death; they are like zombies that haven’t had a chance to visit the grave yet, which perfectly sets up the film’s final act. Screenwriter Ardel Wray (The Leopard Man) had the unenviable task of adapting not a novel but a painting. The film is based on Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin’s famous series of images known as “Isle of the Dead” (1880-1886). One of these pictures previously appeared in a Jacques Tourneur film for Lewton, I Walked with a Zombie (1943, also written by Wray), and here is featured as a backdrop for the opening credits. It is also adapted into a matte painting, briefly glimpsed as General Pherides and Oliver Davis take their boat to the Greek island, Karloff like the ferryman Charon guiding Davis’s doomed soul. This is a common interpretation of the ferryman in the Böcklin painting, and it’s given extra emphasis in Robson’s film, with a statue of three-headed Cerberus – a snake around its neck – awaiting them at the island’s dock.

Three Isles of the Dead: the film's opening credits; one of the original 19th century paintings by Arnold Böcklin; Boris Karloff and Marc Cramer ride a boat to the island in a scene from the film.

Three Isles of the Dead: the film’s opening credits; one of the original 19th century paintings by Arnold Böcklin; Boris Karloff and Marc Cramer ride a boat to the island in a scene from the film.

But this is not a literal Underworld, only a metaphorical one, and the structure of the rest of the film shares traits with a locked room mystery. It’s one of the talkiest of the Lewton series. People are dying, but it is almost certainly the plague, not the vorvolaka to which Madame Kyra refers. In his skepticism, General Pherides is joined by Dr. Drossos (Ernst Deutsch, The Third Man). Pherides quarantines the island, but soon Drossos himself succumbs to the plague. Davis falls for Thea, who is caring for the ill Mary (Katherine Emery, The Maze), the wife to a diplomat, St. Aubyn (Alan Napier, Alfred to the TV Batman). St. Aubyn also dies, while Kyra continues to finger Thea as the supernatural culprit. Also in residence is a Swiss archaeologist, Albrecht (Jason Robards Sr., Bedlam), who blames himself for uncovering the island’s tombs which were subsequently robbed by the same peasants who disturbed the grave of Pherides’ wife. As the deaths pile up, the general’s staunch skepticism begins to erode, and in secret he makes a sacrifice to Hermes to protect them from the vorvolaka – but he, too, begins to grow ill. There is a parallel here to what was happening behind the scenes. Shooting had to halt when Karloff required back surgery (Karloff had lifelong back problems); when he returned, the cast and crew had moved on, and so Lewton enlisted him for the Robert Louis Stevenson story The Body Snatcher (1945) instead, teaming him once more with Bela Lugosi. Then production on Isle of the Dead resumed. Karloff looks frail, gaunt, and downright haunted – appropriate for the story, bringing something vital to it.

Thea (Ellen Drew) pursues strange noises coming from a tomb.

Thea (Ellen Drew) pursues strange noises coming from a tomb.

Actual chills are late in coming, but potent when they arrive. Martin Scorsese listed the film as one of the scariest films of all time in a story for The Daily Beast: “There’s a moment…that never fails to scare me. Let’s just say that it involves premature burial.” Well, it’s not exactly The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but it’s true that Isle of the Dead delivers the creeps just when it counts the most. After a solid hour of talking and not quite as much dread as one would hope from a Lewton picture like this, Robson suddenly ratchets up the tension following the burial of Mrs. St. Aubyn. The widow is a cataleptic and previously expressed a recurring nightmare of premature burial. Of course this occurs, in a plot twist straight out of Edgar Allan Poe. But Robson has the Val Lewton playbook, which means silence as deep as the shadows enveloping the screen, an eerie moaning, and fleeting glimpses of Mrs. St. Aubyn, gone mad, flitting across the screen. At one point she procures a trident of Poseidon, which she uses as an effective murder weapon.  General Pherides, weak from the plague, stumbles through the dark toward Thea, convinced now that she is the vorvolaka, unaware that a real undead killer now stalks through the house. Isle of the Dead benefits from a crackerjack final fifteen minutes, but the build-up takes its sweet time, not always communicating precisely what the stakes are. With such an absence of visual evidence, we don’t really believe in the vorvolaka, which is a miscalculation on the part of the filmmakers. Nonetheless, part of what makes the Lewton films so special is the feel of risky experimentation with genre convention; if Isle of the Dead doesn’t entirely work, one nonetheless appreciates that Robson, Lewton and Wray are attempting to break from the usual rules, to emphasize character development and the themes at play: of modern day science vs. primal fears; of the responsibility of the living to the dead; of the blurry line between life and death. Isle of the Dead almost makes more sense as another chapter in a continuing thesis that runs through the Lewton thrillers, but regardless, it’s a genuinely haunting film that lingers after the ending credits.

Isle of the Dead posters

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