Sunday, September 29, 2013

Cry of the Banshee (1970)

Directed by:
Gordon Hessler

Price had just scored with WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968; released in the U.S. as The Conqueror Worm), so production on another witch movie with the same star began the following year in October 1969. Like Witchfinder, this also tried to tenuously link the proceedings with the writings of Edgar Allan Poe in order to cash in on the highly-profitable Poe adaptations made by Roger Corman just a few years earlier. Poe's name was splashed all over the posters (some even attributed a false quote to him) and it begins with a quote from Poe's "The Bells" ("In the startled ear of night, how they screamed out their affright! Too much horrified to speak, they can only shriek, shriek, out of tune...") but in actuality this film has almost nothing to do with the author's work. Director Gordon Hessler (who'd previously made the Price films THE OBLONG BOX [1969], another film very loosely based on Poe,  and SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN [1969; released 1970]) wasn't pleased with the initial script written by Tim Kelly, so he brought in Christopher Wicking to re-write the entire thing, though both men receive billing in the credits. The music score by Wilfred Josephs was also rejected by Hessler and had to be replaced by a new one composed by Les Baxter.

In 16th Century England, Court of Common Pleas magistrate Lord Edward Whitman (Vincent Price) is overseeing the convictions, torturing and executions of witches supposedly spreading evil in the area. Just like Matthew Hopkins character in Witchfinder, Whitman is clearly just in it for his own sick pleasure. He has a young woman branded with a hot iron ("H is for Heretic!"), whipped through the streets and then secured in the village square on a rack where superstitious townspeople pelt her with rocks. While holding a lavish feast, he has the children of a dead convicted witch entertain him and his guests before killing both. Edward has recently taken a much-younger wife, Patricia (Essy Persson), who disagrees with what's going on and calls him a murderer. She's banished to her room where her stepson Sean (Stephen Chase) rapes her and she begins going mad. Alex has two other children with his first wife; Harry (Carl Rigg), who's just arrived back home from his university studies, and Maureen (Hilary Dwyer), who refuses to take part in all the witch stuff and is more interested in her romance with Roderick (Patrick Mower). Roderick was found as a little boy wandering in the woods, had been adopted into the Whitman home and has a strange calming effect on man and animal alike that may have something to do with an ancient medallion he wears around his neck. Father Tom (Marshall Jones) believes Roderick may actually be descended from witches but he's quickly silenced.

A constant howling is heard through the woods, which Edward attributes to wolves or injured dogs. Others - including Patricia - believe it's a "banshee" and the entire Whitman family is cursed to die. Sean, who uses his stature as the magistrate's son to terrorize and harass the villagers and defile the women, discovers servant girl Maggie (Quinn O'Hara) is in possession of charms and gets her to rat out a supposed real witch named Oona (Elizabeth Bergner). Alex and his soldiers descend on Oona and her barely-dressed young followers and slaughter half of them as a warning for them to stop their ways. Oona proceeds to curse Edward, his flesh, his blood, his wife, his children and his house, while praying to Satan to send "an avenger" to come and kill off the Whitman family. The rest plays out in a pretty predictable fashion. Oona gathers her surviving followers in a secret location underneath a cemetery and starts chanting and poking voodoo dolls. Sean is killed by something and villagers, thinking it's a demon dog, hunt down a rabid dog and kill it. Patricia begins to lose her mind and is slain and others in the Whitman family start being targeted. At the same time, Roderick's mysterious lineage is coming to light. By the way, the "banshee" of the title is not a banshee as it is usually defined.

Though not great, this benefits from good costuming, art direction, acting and music, as well as an effective surprise ending. Taking advantage of the then-newfound freedom from censorship, there's lots of bodice ripping and exposed breasts, too, as well as some bloody moments. Things open with great Monty Python-style animated credits courtesy of Terry Gilliam. The cast also includes the wild-eyed Hugh Griffith as a drunk grave-digger, Michael Elphick and Andrew McCulloch as two of Edward's goons, Sally Geeson (sister of Judy) and Quinn O'Hara as witches and Stephen Rea in his film debut as a villager.


Gui xin niang (1972)

... aka: 鬼新娘
... aka: Bride from Hell, The
... aka: Ghost Bride, The
... aka: Gwai san leung

Directed by:
"John H. Chow" (Hsu Chiang Chou)

While traveling through the mountains, young nobleman Yunpeng Nie (Yang "Fan" / Fang) and his tubby sidekick Dahuozi Shui (Got Siu-Bo) get lost. After briefly encountering a solemn female ghost standing by a lake, they venture deeper into the woods, stumble upon a home and basically invite themselves in to spend the night. While snooping around, Yunpeng encounters Anu (Margaret Hsing Hui), the lady of the house, sleeping nude in bed. Because he's already seen her naked and that will just damage her reputation and make her unworthy of being anyone else's wife, Yunpeng offers his hand in marriage as compensation. (Who would have guessed that courting was much easier on the single's scene in feudal Japan than it is nowadays? Screw match.com and the bars; just show your bare ass to the first available bachelor who strolls your way and he'll be forced to marry you!) Anu's pretty maid Yin-erh Wei (Ha Kong) unfortunately gets the bad end of the deal when Dahuozi stumbles upon her naked in bed. The two men and their new brides then return to their village and go through their bow-fifty-times wedding ceremonies. It isn't long after that Yunpeng realizes that his new bride isn't quite what she seems...

Anu appears shy at first, but that's only because she has no interest in meeting hubby's extended family. Once the family does lay eyes on her, the older ones immediately recognize her and run off. That's because she's actually a ghost. One of Yunpeng's aunties makes her nephew a special robe with the image of demon catcher Zhong Kui (Chang I-Fei) sewn into the back. When Anu sees it, the ghost-self projects out of her body and she's forced into facing Zhong - who grows to giant size, tries to spear her with his giant sword and then tries to Godzilla stomp on her with his giant foot - but she's able to escape and burn the robe. Anu also refuses to go to cemeteries because she claims they scare her. While at the village graveyard, Yunpeng meets up with Taoist Master Taiyi (Seung Fung), expert in Fung Shui, astrology and fortune telling. Through him, Yunpeng learns that his wife is actually a woman named Aijiao Feng who, 20 years earlier, watched her parents being slain by three men. Afterward, the guys also murdered her and, for an encore, raped her dead body. I was going to dub this "I Married a Ghost" but "I Married a Ghost Who Wants Revenge on the Slobs Who Fucked Her Corpse" has a much better ring to it.

Despite all of this new information and his new bride behaving strangely and abnormally, Yunpeng still refuses to believe Anu is a ghost. The villagers aren't so complacent and drag her off to the ocean, where they tie her to a stake and plot to either burn her to death or stone her. Village elder Uncle Yang prays to their God for advice on what to do and he materializes in the sky and reprieves Anu, so they let her free. Some of the elder village men - the ones responsible for Aijiao / Anu's murder - end up being visited by the ghost and are killed. One is strangled to death in a cemetery. Another bangs his head against a wall and falls over dead. In the film's only standout sequence, the third murderer's soul is sucked out of his body, shrunk and then becomes trapped on the ghost's paper fan, which is later burned. Master Taiyi pops back up at the end to chase the ghostess around while obnoxiously ringing a bell.

This was one of the earliest Shaw Brothers horror efforts and was made before they perfected their brand of crazy / gory genre offerings with standout films from talented directors like Chih-Hung Kuei (THE BOXER'S OMEN) and Meng Hua Ho (BLACK MAGIC). Bride does have its own dubious distinction: not only does it fail, it fails in four distinctive ways. It sucks as a drama because the writing and acting aren't very good. It sucks as a doomed romance because forced, hoary melodrama is a poor substitute for plot and characterization. It sucks as a horror film because the tone is all over the place and it fails to generate suspense and atmosphere. And, perhaps most painfully of all, it sucks at being a comedy. Dahuozi's brand of double-take, constantly-mugging comedy is about as irritating and unfunny as it gets. Not really the poor actor's fault; the gags and dialogue are just that consistently lame. Strangely enough, despite all of the genres this touches upon, it is currently listed on IMDb as being a "mystery;" one of the only things it is really not.

To add insult to injury, the special effects are also pretty poor. There's only minor wire work for the ghost flying scenes and terrible miniature people burning that look like rag dolls set ablaze (probably cause they are rag dolls set ablaze). Instead of using a make-up application for the ghost, they simply light her face green. The editing jump cuts when the ghost appears and disappears are extremely choppy and amateurishly done with seemingly no consideration for continuity. Even the various ghost-fighting methods - usually one of the more amusing angles of these Asian ghost films - are weak. This one has a flute to call forth ghosts, a peach wood sword to drive them away and other things going on but they're usually used in just one throwaway scene and then forgotten about.

Lead actress Hsing (who shows breasts and ass twice) led a pretty interesting life. She trained extensively at the New Method College, then joined the Southern Drama Group and made her debut in Shaw Productions in 1966, where she'd remain until 1973. Afterward, she married a doctor and relocated to the U.S.. Hsing wouldn't be heard from again until 1994 when she made headlines for murdering her own mother with an axe!! She spent a year in a mental institution before being sentenced to eleven years in prison and passed away in 2009 soon after being released. Director Chow Yuk-Kong (or Hsu Chiang Chou), who'd previously made The Enchanting Ghost (1970), used the alias "John H. Chow" for this one.

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