Technically, this English horror-flick came out in 1970; but that essentially counts as the (late) ’60s, in my opinion. It seems to me that there are at least two basic types of Witch-Movies. One type is concerned with locating Witches before they have a chance to make their Virgin Sacrifice (an example is the ’60s English film The Witches, as well as all three Wicker Man movies: the original, and the two remakes). Another type is the Witch-Hunter movie, which flips the dire qualities of the circumstance upside-down: the impetus of the Witch-Hunter film is to stop the Witch-Hunter before he can hunt any more innocent victims. An example of this category is Cry of the Banshee (starring Vincent Price), which also further demonstrates that the English were really into Witch-Movies in the 1960s; but some of them (like The Witches) are more fun, in a campy sense, than others.
Cry of the Banshee (which someone who is not I has put up on YouTube , just sort of noticed, is all) is not a good movie. It looks like it was filmed on a budget of maybe $20 per day (or the English equivalent), and represents a very strange mash-up of English history and medieval Witch-Lore. Set ostensibly in the 16th century (or the Tudor era of England), it appears to have Catholic priests, so presumably takes place either before Henry VIII’s split from the Catholic Church, or during the reign of Bloody Mary. It kind of doesn’t really matter, though, because it is too ungrounded otherwise in historical record: Witches in this film are tortured, routinely and gratuitously, and even burned alive: despite the fact that England did not torture or burn Witches (England never adopts an Inquisitorial mindset, and the Inquisition- the driving force in continental Witch-accusation- never takes hold in England; what English Witch-Cases there were, represent localized affairs, and England never abandoned the Rule of Law in charging Witches in court).
Cry of the Banshee is obviously an Exploitation Film, made to put pretty, frightened, buxom young ladies in danger of Witch-Torture and rape, their bodices ripped open, with salacious shots of exposed breasts. On that level, it is creepy and unpleasant (although all of the English actors do a very good job, considering the material and the budget). Vincent Price, as the sadistic, obsessed Witch-Hunting magistrate, is hammy beyond belief, scowling and glowering and literally making an exit out of one scene with a Snidely Whiplash burst of laughter; however, the script is so bad, his over-the-top performance probably saves the film better than a straight-forward one would.
The thing that makes Cry of the Banshee interesting is its depiction of Witchcraft as the “Heathen Old Religion.” There are references throughout to the “spells and charms of Witches and Sorceresses,” in this Time when “Witchcraft and the ghosts of the Old Religion hold sway” over the English imagination. One individual is charged with “Heathen Witchcraft” (this 1970 film obviously considers “Heathen” to be a synonym for “Pagan”), and the comment is made near the end, on the uniqueness of seeing a Christian priest in a “Heathen place” (the coven’s grotto-temple). Surely the Celtic stone-carving in the forgotten graveyard (the place where the Witches’ God is buried) signals to us the transition from the “civilized” world of Tudor society (and rape and torture and Witch-Hunting), to the world of the woods, the wild, and “Heathen Witchcraft.”
The best is the presentation of the coven, led by an eccentric older lady named Oona. They are first seen conducting what looks very much like a Dionysian Rite, all decked out in togas, with wreaths of flowers in their hair (Witches, in Cry of the Banshee, are the Flower Children of the Tudor period). Oona is a very protective Priestess, referring to her followers (the woman has an odd accent) as “Oooooona’s Children,” while one of her Witches proclaims to Vincent Price that “Oona is good! Oona heals! Oona is Peace! Oona is Love!!” When Vincent Price and his Witch-Hunters start to move against Oona: she turns all vengeful on behalf of her Children, hexing and cursing Price by summoning a sort of Werewolf-Spirit to “avenge Oona’s Children!!”
This movie is a little whacked-out and all-over-the-place: it does have a point-of-view, however, that is curiously Pagan. “Paganism,” in this instance, is associated with Nature- the woods, the forest, the wild; what the Christian folk think that they have banished away, in their villages and manors. Ah, but as the Christians punish and torture these Witches (especially those discovered in the wild woods), the fury of the “Heathen” Gods and Witches and Spirits begins to move against them, eventually pulling them from their supposed places-of-safety, into the Pagan wilderness: where they are basically so many lamb-chops tossed to wolves.
You can’t say that Cry of the Banshee is a good movie (although it is well-acted); for one thing, the Banshee is Irish, and this film is set in England. Its theme, however, is interesting, from a Pagan perspective (although you might want to check it out just for the Monty Python-style demon-illustrations that animate the opening credits.)