Synopsis: Vincent Price is diabolical, commanding and “as brutally horrific as ever” (Motion Picture Exhibitor) as a corrupt English magistrate who leads a crusade to rid the countryside of witches…but doesn’t mind accosting a few innocent wenches on his way! Murder, and titillation are just a few methods of interrogation in this lurid “witchcraft shocker” (Motion Picture Exhibitor) that pits evil against more evil in a duel to the death!
eyelights: its locations. its atmosphere.
eyesores: its performances.
“It’s as though we’re all seeds of evil.”
In this day and age, it’s not surprising to find movies with various cuts: a softer one for theatrical distribution and an edgier one for home video. This is no doubt thanks to the DVD boon of the 2000s, which allowed for greater flexibility in media content.
Though cynics might suggest that “uncut” versions were just ploys to cash in.
But there was a time when movies had different cuts for different markets, and that audiences were only familiar with one of them – often a watered down or radically altered version. Naturally, this more frequently happened in the North American market.
‘Cry of the Banshee’ was one such victim of our hypocritical puritanism. Released in 1970, the Gordon Hessler motion picture was recut in the U.S. to avoid offending sensibilities, censoring the nudity and violence, but also changing the credits and score.
For years, this was the version audiences knew.
When it was released on DVD in 2003, the original uncut version finally graced the disc. Ironically, though, the North American cut then disappeared from circulation. But now both are available on home video for various audiences to enjoy and/or compare.
Though I’d seen the uncut version a couple of times before, I had never seen the North American cut before.
The story remains the same: Lord Whitman is a magistrate obsessed with hunting witches; he and his son Sean take advantage of his status to torment local villagers. But Whitman finally crosses a line when he and his thugs slaughter part of Oona’s coven.
To exact her revenge, she calls on Satan to send her an avenger.
And though Lord Whitman doesn’t believe in witchcraft, and likes to show the villagers the errors of their ways, as his family members succumb to a growingly peculiar series of attacks, he begins to convert – and soon realizes that Oona is behind it all.
But it’s too late.
What’s interesting about the theatrical cut of ‘Cry of the Banshee’ is that there are no new scenes, and none were pulled, but there are some noticeably different editorial choices. It’s often just a little trim here or there, or moving some footage around.
And yet it makes a world of difference.
Now, I’ve read somewhere (and I don’t know that this is substantiated), that the Unrated (a.k.a. Director’s, a.k.a. Hessler’s) cut was moderately different from the original script – and that all that the producers did was to re-edit it as originally intended.
In any event, the theatrical cut flows a bit better.
Right from the start, it sets the stage in a more coherent fashion, taking a scene that was buried at the half-hour mark in the Unrated cut and opening with it instead starting with the trial: the one in which Lord Whitman and his thugs slaughter Oona’s coven.
From a narrative standpoint, what this does is properly puts into focus the conflict between Whitman and Oona, and better justifies the revenge she seeks; the conflict doesn’t come out of nowhere anymore. On the flipside, it also reveals Oona’s avenger earlier.
There are a few minor shifts such as this one, but the main edits concern sex and violence: Sean isn’t seen molesting his stepmother, breasts are no longer exposed, women aren’t brutalized as frequently, and the violence is generally less gruesome – if at all.
This is a double-edged sword because it’s contextually appropriate to have this sex and violence; it adds realism and grit to the picture. However, it always felt a bit gratuitous so removing it makes the picture a bit classier (though the true motivation was ratings).
While it hardly affects the story, another significant change is in the opening credits sequence, which was originally animated by legendary director and Monty Python member Terry Gilliam. It seemed out of place, but it was a memorable piece nonetheless.
A final difference between both versions is the score: Gordon Hessler’s cut featured a strident and frantic set of compositions by Wilfred Josephs, and the producers replaced it with a more conventional one by American International Pictures stalwart Les Baxter.
Since this version brings no new footage to the table, unfortunately no alternate takes are inserted, meaning that the performances remain subpar. Vincent Price is particularly campy in the moments when he’s laughing, basically swallowing the screen whole.
But, all told, I’d say that the theatrical cut of ‘Cry of the Banshee’ is the superior product. It’s not brilliant by any stretch of the imagination, but its narrative is structured in a more intuitive fashion. That alone makes up for any flaws and oversights.
It’s not a far cry from the Director’s cut, but it’s better.
Date of viewing: May 14, 2017