Let’s get a few things straight right off the bat. There is no banshee; the title is only connected by a line a character mutters early on in response to a distant wolf howling. Also, despite that it was a period horror from American International Pictures and claims so on the poster, this is not in any way related to Edgar Allan Poe’s writing. However, it does start with a Poe quote for good measure. Got that? Good. It’s then followed by animation from Terry Gilliam. How he got talked into this, I have no idea.
Vincent Price plays an old and wicked magistrate in Elizabethan England. For fun, he judges, tortures, and either humiliates or murders people accused of witchcraft. His family seems partly composed of sadists, and they enjoy participating in these regular witch hunts as well as a lot of rape. Like a lot of rape. Even pseudo-incest rape as one son goes after his stepmom. Yes, it is every bit as gross as that sounds.
Unfortunately, this bloodlust leads them to attack a weird nature-loving commune, which swears revenge using a foundling servant that has grown up in Price’s household. Meanwhile, the one good son arrives with a new priest in time to investigate the various goings on. A mad dog is spotted around town, and everyone thinks it’s what is doing the killing, but no. Oh no. It’s way weirder than that.
Now we should take a moment to go over Price’s role here. Yes, he plays a sadistic English lord who hunts and judges witches, much like in another period horror he was in, Witchfinder General. This movie is not nearly as good and plays more like a cheap “me too.” Script rewrites abounded, many of which made the witches more sympathetic and went unused. Also, Price was in ongoing contract negotiations and grew very bitter towards the AIP team; while he continued to work with them for several years, this was the last of his period horror films.
However, the script rewrites do make for some jarring shifts that at least make the movie interesting and less predictable. For example, Price goes on and on, railing against the “old religion” and praising his English ways, but he’s the obvious conservative-minded individual. The witch coven is made up of mostly young people with long hair, flowers, flowy clothing made of likely bed sheets, and give a definite free love hippie vibe when they first appear. It’s easy to see this movie up to this point as a response to divisions between generations in response to a rapidly changing culture in 1960s England and America…until you learn the witches really are Satan worshippers who sell their souls to get revenge using one of the few good people as their weapon. Suddenly the hippies are a lot less sympathetic.
And then comes the next twist: Satan turns the one nice guy into a wolfman when he kills. Yeah, suddenly it’s a quasi-werewolf movie. Those script rewrites are a bitch, man. At one point, you get a pseudo-transformation scene during a fight, though it basically works as more makeup being applied to the actor with each cut. IMDB even has it listed as a goof.
That’s Cry of the Banshee, folks. Killer satanic hippies, a fake werewolf, a title that doesn’t apply, sadist witch hunters, and even voodoo dolls show up. That’s right, the hippie Satanists pull out voodoo dolls, because what better way to show your evilness than by making subtle references to the “evil” Black religion so often used as the source of villains’ supernatural powers in other horror films.
And yet, I still somehow enjoyed this movie, probably because it becomes unpredictable as a result of the mess. It’s no Witchfinder General though…so go watch that instead.