Synopsis: Coffins, blood and live corpses! A gasping, gnawing heart stopping evil lies buried in The Oblong Box. Do you dare unearth its wrath? Vincent Price (Madhouse, Twice Told Tales) and Christopher Lee (The Crimson Cult, House of the Long Shadows) are at their terrifying best as a plantation owner with a shocking family secret and a wealthy doctor desperate to continue his morbid experiments on human flesh in this, Edgar Allan Poe’s (Tales of Terror) classic tale of the living dead!
Price returns to his English manor from an African trip with his mad, mutilated brother and buries his chained up sibling alive. When the body is exhumed, the madman somehow still alive begins a systematic search for vengeance. Co-written, produced and directed by horror great, Gordon Hessler (Cry of the Banshee, Scream and Scream Again) with top-notch cinematography by John Coquillon (Straw Dogs, Cross of Iran).
The Oblong Box 6.75
eyelights: its core concept.
eyesores: its timid delivery. its blandness.
“What has he done to deserve this?”
Success is a double-edged sword: Sometimes it opens doors or gives you wings. Sometimes it sows the seeds of arrogance and self-indulgence. Sometimes it can stifle creative growth and innovation.
American International Pictures had such wild success with their series of Corman/Poe films that they just couldn’t let go of the formula; for years after, they did everything to piggy-back other films on it.
One way was to drop Vincent Price into a horror film; as he’d been the star of most of the Corman/Poe cycle, he was intrinsically associated with it. Another way was to name a movie after a Poe short.
It didn’t matter if it had little or nothing to do with Poe (as evidenced in the renaming of ‘Witchfinder General‘ to ‘The Conqueror Worm’ or in naming ‘City Under the Sea‘ after Poe’s ‘The City in the Sea’).
Tenuous or not, a Poe connection was desirable.
The same goes for ‘The Oblong Box’, the 1969 Gordon Hessler motion picture that once again stars Vincent Price and which takes its name -and little else- from Edgar Allen Poe’s eponymous short story.
The picture revolves around the wealthy Markham family, who have a plantation in Africa. On a visit there, for unspecified reasons, Sir Edward is captured by locals and cursed with disfigurement and madness.
His brother Julian brings him back to the United States, but is forced to keep him locked up in a room in their family mansion. But Sir Edward has conspired with a couple of business partners to find his release…
And exact his revenge.
Really, ‘The Oblong Box’ is a fairly run-of-the-mill picture for AIP or even Hammer Films: it has a decent but not remarkable cast, it’s atmospheric but not especially scary, and it suffers from weak production.
The concept is perfectly fine, but it’s delivered with little passion or vision: director Gordon Hessler doesn’t seem to know (or care) what would’ve been needed to make the material compelling or pulse-pounding.
For instance, Hessler’s idea of “scary” were close-ups – so we were given a numerous amount of uncomfortably close shots of Vincent Price reacting with fear and/or horror. Or a creepy voodoo priest casting his spells.
(The latter was mostly disconcerting not so much because of the screaming and clucking but because we don’t understand the language used and their customs. I wondered: what would a role-reversal be like?
What would it have been like to be a North American aboriginal who’s transplanted to Europe and tortured? Would it appear as alien and disturbing? And who are “savage” and who are “civilized” in all of this?)
Another mistake was the decision to follow both Julian and Edward, giving the film two main characters, but investing only half of the effort in each. Since neither feel especially well-developed, we can’t care.
And once Edward becomes the key component, Julian totally falls to the wayside. Edward is awkwardly used as both a “monster” and also as someone whom we should empathize with – but it doesn’t work at all.
At the very least it would have been necessary to show Edward’s madness and burial from his point of view for us to understand his terror and motivation. Sadly, we see it from others’ perspective of him instead.
And when we finally transfer to his perspective, he’s completely neutered, becoming a character motivated by a vague quest for vengeance. There’s no real sense of threat or deep-seated desire emanating from him.
(Of course, putting your co-lead behind a red velvet mask doesn’t help in getting emotion…)
The worst of it is when, for no reason, he’s drawn into a brothel by two drunkards. There’s no reason why Edward would allow this aside for giving audiences a little T&A – and a wholly gratuitous brawl in the bar.
Mind you, this contrivance leads to his murder of a prostitute who accidentally pulls his mask off and sees his ghastly face – so that he may conveniently leave his cloak behind for the police to find afterwards.
Even the horror scenes are uneventful, with gruesome gashes looking like faint paint strokes and Edward’s disturbing disfigurement being a mere discolouration and bloating. They wouldn’t even scare a toddler.
Well, maybe a sheltered toddler.
Frankly, The only truly remarkable thing about ‘The Oblong Box’ is the fact that, through Julian’s own self-reflections, the film makes the audience consider the plight of Africans being exploited by wealthy white men.
This adds a more thoughtful, human touch to what is otherwise a conventional b-list horror film. And it gives dimension to Julian, making him humble and righteous in choosing poverty over profiteering.
But these are meagre crumbs in what is otherwise a rather bland affair. Ultimately, ‘The Oblong Box’ is stocked with many choice ingredients, but it’s hampered by a mediocre recipe and an uncreative chef.
And no magic can animate this lifeless corpse.
Nota bene: Christopher Lee has a small role playing a doctor who experiments on the dead and who ends up saddled with Edward. But it’s hardly relevant because he’s barely utilized. It’s a total waste.
Date of viewing: March 23, 2017