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THE OBLONG BOX (1969)

Director: Gordon Hessler, Michael Reeves (uncredited)
Starring: Vincent Price, Alister Williamson, Christopher Lee, Peter Arne, Hilary Dwyer, Harry Baird, Carl Rigg
Screenplay: Lawrence Huntingdon and Christopher Wicking, based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe

Synopsis: In Africa, Sir Edward Markham (Alister Williamson) is tortured by a witchdoctor's sorcery, having his face destroyed as punishment for a transgression against the natives. He is taken back to England by his younger brother, Julien (Vincent Price), who confines Sir Edward in the attic of their house because of his appearance and his violent fits of madness. Sir Edward bribes the family lawyer, Trench (Peter Arne), to bring to England a witchdoctor (Harry Baird) who can restore his face. The witchdoctor makes Sir Edward a drug which can induce a death-like trance. Trench and an accomplice, Norton (Carl Rigg), intend to kidnap Sir Edward's "body", but when Julien finds his lifeless brother, he immediately seals him in a coffin and has him buried before Trench and Norton can act. Norton is horrified, but Trench, content with the money he has already earned, declares that nothing can be done and shrugs the incident off. But Neuhartt (Christopher Lee), a local doctor, has body-snatchers in his employ. Opening the coffin of his latest delivery, Dr Neuhartt is attacked by the "corpse". Blackmailing Neuhartt with his first-hand knowledge of his illegal activities, Sir Edward settles into his house posing as a relative, and soon embarks on a bloody course of revenge.

The credits claim that The Oblong Box is derived from a story by Poe, but other than the central image of a man being buried alive it has considerably less to do with Poe than any of Roger Corman's efforts. Rather, along with movies such as The Reptile (1966) and The Ghoul (1975), the film falls into that interesting sub-class of British horror films dealing with the revenge of exploited colonial populations. Here, the specific crime is the killing of a native child, but later on Julien Markham confesses the extent to which his family's plantations have robbed the local population. (Julien's remarks about the natives' "innocence" do smack of condescension, but I suppose they're accurate to the period.) The film suggests that retribution is inevitable, a comforting thought for the downtrodden. Thus, while Sir Edward suffers unjustly for most of the movie, in the end the curse is passed on to Julien, the real transgressor. The plotline of The Oblong Box is overly complicated (there are two independent sets of body-snatchers, for instance) but consistently interesting, and the finished product shows surprisingly little of the movie's chequered history. Production began with Michael Reeves as director, but Gordon Hessler took over after Reeves died. Reeves' touch can be seen in the restrained performance turned in by Vincent Price; the two had earlier collaborated on the horrifying Witchfinder General (1968). The original scriptwriter was longtime writer-director Lawrence Huntingdon, who also died. The script was completed by Christopher Wicking, who worked on the screenplays of two of Hessler's other films, the bizarre and entertaining Scream And Scream Again (1969) and the less successful Cry Of The Banshee (1970). The Oblong Box was the first film to team Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, although sadly their only scene is when Lee's character is dying. Hilary Dwyer appears as Julien Markham's wife, Elizabeth. She and Price also co-starred in WitchfinderGeneral and Cry Of The Banshee, where their relationship was considerably less cosy. Surrounding these principals are a group of excellent character actors - Peter Arne, Carl Rigg, Godfrey James, Rupert Davies - who all lend good support. The film falters where so many of this period do: in its narrow-minded depiction of "evil" (i.e. openly sexual) behaviour - we see a pub/brothel where wicked women wear low-cut dresses and show their legs - and its poor make-up effects. For about 95% of the film Sir Edward has his face hidden from the viewer, either by being shot from behind or through the wearing of a mask, while character after character reacts with horror to his appearance. After a build-up like that, anything was going to be disappointing, but the finished product is a total let-down, resembling a bad case of simultaneous acne and warts: frankly, I'd be calling in a dermatologist rather than a witchdoctor. A much wiser move would have been never to reveal his face; in that way, the ultimate fate of Vincent Price's Julien would have been left up to the imagination of the audience. Apart from this misstep, The Oblong Box is an entertaining horror film played commendably straight.

Check out all the details of this movie on the IMDB