Gordon Hessler helms CRY OF THE BANSHEE, an uncanny but convoluted horror flick from American International Pictures. This 1970 outing does have several things going for it, including an incredible opening credit sequence by Terry Gilliam and a lead performance by Vincent Price that is terrifically vicious. Unfortunately, the screenplay by Tim Kelly and Christopher Wicking is too complex and it can be hard to keep track of the small militia of characters.
Price stars as Lord Edward Whitman, an Elizabethan era magistrate presiding over a small, ignorant English village. The film opens as he decides the fate of a young woman and has her marched through the streets prior to placing her in the stocks. True to form, Whitman holds a spread at his mansion and two teenagers show up. He chastens them, even as a howling noise emanates from outside. He also hunts down a group of necromancers, thus finally irritating the coven leader Oona (Elizabeth Bergner). She curses the entire Whitman family and a demon possesses the servant Roderick (Patrick Mower).
There are lots of interweaving relationships in CRY OF THE BANSHEE and it can be hard to keep track of things without a flow chart. Roderick is involved with one of the Whitmans (Hilary Dwyer) and Lord Edward is okay with this because it seems to have a calming effect. Meanwhile, Lord Edward is on his second wife (Essy Persson) and his eldest son (Stephen Chase) takes what could worst be described as an “interest” in her. The family details sketch just how stomach-turning the Whitman band can be and it gets all the more intricate when Harry Whitman (Carl Rigg) returns home with a priest (Marshall Jones).
CRY OF THE BANSHEE is best when it hints at meaning, like when Price rants about the authority of government and how he plans on maintaining power. The tone is beautifully pessimistic, counting an ebullient tavern song about rape and castration. This is emphasized by the sexual assault of a barmaid. Naturally, the villagers cheer and chuckle along. Hessler’s movie does highlight the horrors of the ignorant, how they tumble against the heaven-sent glut of Lord Whitman and Co., how easily they can slip into lunacy. Unfortunately, it’s too complicated and overcooked in the balance. It’s also remarkably easy to get lost in this sea of Elizabethan woe and enthusiastic sexual assaults.