Far removed from the Corman/Poe cycle of the early 1960’s, Vincent Price, soldier’s on with another Poe inspired thriller from AIP that has far more in common with his recent Witchfinder General than it does the Corman tales of terror.
Like his character Mathew Hopkins of Witchfinder General, Price, again is a on the hunt for those that practice the dark arts in the 16th Century. He’s a Magistrate who uses his position to fill his own bloodlust for torture and to maim all those who come before him. The first lines he utters in the film are, “H is for Heretic” before he sentences a young woman to be branded with an H and is subsequently whipped while being led through the village to the amusement of those who live there.
Yes this proves to be a cruel film without the tongue in cheek humor of the Corman cycle with no winking at the camera from Dear Vincent. Sadly, a fact that for me makes the film less enjoyable as a whole when compared to titles like House of Usher, The Raven and Pit and the Pendulum.
Price’s household consists of an evil son following in his footsteps, another more genteel son just returning to the family homestead and a daughter who is in love with a caretaker sworn to the service of Price’s much younger second wife. It’s a family that will soon be cursed by a powerful, vengeance seeking witch named Oona played effectively by Elizabeth Bergner. She’s so good it seems like she’s been torn from the pages of a history book just to appear in this Gordon Hessler film.
No one is safe from Price and his son Sean (Stephan Chase). Especially fair maidens and wenches at the local inn. It’s this taste for brutality that will lead them to their ruin. When Sean uncovers a charm carrying barmaid, he’ll torture the name of Oona from her lips which will lead to Price on a witchhunt in the woods where he and his charges will find Oona and her followers in a rather tame dance and I suspect what’s meant to be an orgy. Price will slaughter many of them but in a rare act of mercy will banish Oona and her surviving followers to the hills.
That will prove to be his undoing when she swears vengeance among Price, his offspring, his wife and all those within his home. The vengeance will come from within when Oona’s power of the dark arts will transform a trusted member of Price’s inner circle into a Banshee, a werewolf like creature with a taste for blood and violence.
Price is left in anguish following the first killing but when it comes to the gory death of his second wife (Essy Persson) whom he would rather do without, he’s quick to coldly ask at her funeral, “How much are we paying the weepers?” followed by “See that they weep until dawn.” The latter comment has little to do with his own mourning but rather he wants to see the village weepers more than earn their meager pay. Just another act of privileged cruelty on his part.
Following the two murders, Price is to learn that his deceased wife’s caretaker (Patrick Mower) has been bedding his daughter, Hilary Dwyer. Mower is quickly banished to the torture chamber beneath Price’s estate but with aide from Oona’s black mass and her chanting worshippers, he won’t be there very long.
Banshee was another in the long line of films Price had been making for Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson at A.I.P. It would be his third consecutive pairing with the director Hessler having just filmed The Oblong Box (1969) and Scream and Scream Again released just prior to this howling tale of black masses, witch hunts and wolf like creatures.
Hessler would direct another Poe tale the following year for A.I.P., Murders In the Rue Morgue but this time Price was nowhere to be found. Instead it was Herbert Lom who sporadically dabbled in the horror genre taking on the role that one would assume Price would have played had he been involved.
It’s interesting to note that Miss Dwyer had just played Price’s mistress in Witchfinder General, his fiancee in The Oblong Box and here his daughter on Banshee. Surely knowing Price’s taste for comedy and wit, the pair found that amusing while on set making these period pieces.
Also turning up in Banshee is one time Oscar winner for Ben-Hur, Hugh Griffith, in a minor though important role as a grave digger/robber who sees all that is going on in the village around him and who knows the whereabouts of Oona and her followers. Griffith could also be seen in the upcoming Phibes’ films that Price fans adore and rightly so.
Others you may spot include a brief appearance (though I believe dubbed) by Robert Hutton who plied his trade in many a low budget thriller including Invisible Invaders, The Slime People and The Colossus of New York. As for Patrick Mower who plays a major role in the film, I recognize him from Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out but am not so familiar with what appears to be an extensive catalog of British television roles.
Thankfully Banshee was put out on blu ray with dual cuts. The one released theatrically which had A.I.P. shifting scenes around and Hessler’s original cut clocking in at 4 minutes longer in length. I couldn’t help but notice that the opening credits are animated in bizarre fashion with many a strange image. No wonder! Terry Gilliam is the credited animator on the film.
While I’m not about to say Banshee is as enjoyable as Price’s earlier film’s of the 60’s it still holds one’s attention but be warned it’s a far more cruel picture and performance by Vinnie the P than I prefer. Sure Price made a great villain on camera but there’s something far more magical and enduring when he’s acting as if he’s in on the joke with a slice of ham on the side than he is here portraying a straight madman intent on cruelty, torture and bloodletting. Perhaps it’s the hardness of the character that never let’s up whereas many of his earlier ghouls had a softness and likability to them as did his Prof. Henry Jarrod in House of Wax.
For Price fans like myself, but I’d hesitate to recommend this one to someone I was trying to turn on to the joys of Dear Vincent. Movie poster? Yes indeed. Added one to the collection many years ago.
Price’s last Gothic Horror, and the last Gothic Horror for AIP too. Yes, his earlier stuff had more whimsy, but I think sometimes he was more effective giving a restrained performance like here, Tomb of Ligeia, and The Last Man on Earth. Not that he wasn’t brilliant giving some ‘ham’ here and there, but sometimes playing it straight works too.
I guess I just prefer his winking at the camera and that might have something to do with his off screen personality that we see in interviews. One of the few personalities I truly would have loved to have met and share some time with. He seemed to have a large zest for living life to it’s fullest.
I have to agree that the later Gordon Hessler-directed “Poe” pictures with Vincent are a lot less fun than the Corman ones. Never realized that Terry Gilliam contributed the title animations — now that’s a fun bit of trivia! I am, however, a huge fan of Hessler’s (and Harryhausen’s) Golden Voyage of Sinbad. That one never gets old for me.
Funny how I never think of the directors on Harryhausen’s films. I’m not likely alone in that confession, I just think of them as his movies even though he didn’t really direct them. Love that Sinbad film as well as the other two.