Gordon Hessler, 1969
Starring: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Alister Williamson, Rupert Davies, Uta Levka
In 1865 England, Julian Markham guiltily keeps his brother locked up at home. His brother, Sir Edward, was disfigured while in Africa as punishment for crimes against the locals. Desperate to escape captivity, Edward and the family lawyer hire a witchdoctor to help fake Edward’s death. N’Galo, the witchdoctor, gives him a strange drug and puts him in a trance. Discovering his brother apparently dead, Julian prepares for his funeral. Julian asks the family lawyer to acquire a more attractive looking body, as no one has seen Edward in years and Julian is embarrassed by his ruined face. The lawyer and N’Galo murder a local man and dump his body in the river after Edward’s funeral. Relieved it is all over, Julian marries.
Through a series of odd events, grave robbers dig up Edward and sell him to Dr. Neuhartt, who is performing illegal experiments. Edward wakes up and blackmails Neuhartt into concealing him. Unfortunately for Neuhartt, Edward begins murdering those who wronged him. With the police on his trail, Julian learns that Edward is not dead and begins searching for his brother on his own. Edward, meanwhile, is trying to find N’Galo with the hope that the man can fix his hideous face, but he doesn’t realize that it will have fatal results...
Vincent Price and Rupert Davies (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave) had previously worked with director Michael Reeves on Witchfinder General. The Oblong Box began as Reeves’ next project, but he passed away of an accidental barbiturate overdose at the young age of 25 before filming began. Gordon Hessler was given the project instead and changed a number of plot elements. This feels like somewhat of a rip off of Roger Corman and Vincent Price’s Edgar Allen Poe themed series. It seems like director Gordon Hessler tried to cash in on that with a few films, such as Scream and Scream Again, which would reunite Vincent Price and Christopher Lee with even less screen time, and Murders in the Rue Morgue. He also helmed Cry of the Banshee, which was obviously influenced by Witchfinder General.
As with Witchfinder General and some of Reeves’ other films, The Oblong Box leaves a lingering taste of something distasteful and mean-spirited. None of the characters are really likable and everyone seemingly has a motive for why they hate the other characters. It is openly misogynistic and fairly racist, despite the fact that the overall plot is about the evils of colonialism. During this period there were a number of British horror films that look at the terror, exploitation, and immoralism of colonialism, such as Hammer’s The Reptile (1966) and this fits neatly into that small subgenre.
This is the first collaboration between Price and Lee, though they only really share one scene together. They are both entertaining, as always, though it’s a shame they didn’t have more time together. Hammer regular Alister Williamson (The Gorgon, The Evil of Frankenstein) has his first leading role and actually has more screen time than Price or Lee. Unfortunately for Williamson, he wears a mask for most of the film and his voice was dubbed over by someone else.
The killer’s red velvet mask with slits for eyes is effective, unfortunately far more so than his make up. He only has some mild deformities and sores, created by Jimmy Evans of Captain Cronos: Vampire Hunter, but nothing actually horrifying. Edward remains masked for so long that it’s easy to assume he’s going to be an evil or deformed twin, which was actually Michael Reeves’ original plan. Without that intended twist, his unmasking is absurdly late in the film and doesn’t pack quite the punch it was leading towards.
Other than the borrowed title, this is not really a Poe adaptation, though it does have some wonderful elements seemingly plucked from Gothic fiction. In addition to the numerous teams of grave robbers, murder, a gentlemanly and masked killer, there is also the insane family member in the attic.
The plot is a bit ridiculous and complicated, but this is an enjoyable, if lesser seen effort for Price and Lee. Overall the mystery is more compelling than the horror or violence, but fans of ‘60s horror will definitely want to check it out. The Oblong Box is available on DVD from MGM’s Midnite Movies series as a double feature with Hessler’s Scream and Scream Again.