Friday, 25 March 2011

The Oblong Box (1969)

The Oblong Box stars Vincent Price and features Christopher Lee in a supporting role. You might well think that’s reason enough to see this film. If so, you won’t be disappointed.

Like every second horror movie of the 1960s this 1969 British movie claims to be based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. It is fact a product of American International Pictures and represents an attempt to continue the Roger Corman Poe series with different directors. The later Corman Poe films had been made in Britain.

We start with a prologue in the heart of Africa, with Sir Julian Markham (Vincent Price) witnessing a horrific scene of torture at a native ritual. We then find ourselves back in England, where Sir Julian is about to be married. His happiness is clouded by the necessity to care for his brother, Sir Edward. Some terrible event befell Sir Edward in Africa, and he has been left hideously scarred and dangerously insane.

Sir Edward has plans to escape and to take his revenge on the world, with the assistance of a motley crew of desperadoes and an African witch doctor. Sir Edward will appear to be dead and his confederates will later rescue him. But of course, this being a horror movie, the best-laid schemes invariably go wrong.

Also caught up in these events is a prominent surgeon, Dr Neuhartt (Christopher Lee). The good doctor has a need for corpses for both teaching purposes and for his private researches. In the 19th century there was of course no legal way to obtain such cadavers and so even respectable surgeons might well find themselves having to deal with some very unsavoury characters, characters who use rather unpleasant methods. Grave-robbing being just one of the options that such persons would avail themselves of.

Dr Neuhartt is caught up unwittingly in the affairs of the unfortunate Markham family.

Gordon Hessler does a very competent job. His gothic horror flicks for AIP are underrated (Cry of the Banshee is even more under-appreciated than this one). He realised it was necessary to move with the times and to make the horror slightly more overt than it had been in the Corman films but he still retains most of the flavour.

Vincent Price is perfectly cast and does an admirable job. Price was capable of giving serious and subtle performances in horror movies or of camping it up outrageously depending on which approach the movie in question demanded. In this case he keeps the hamminess to a minimum. Christopher Lee doesn’t get a lot to do but he brings that distinctive gravitas to his performance.

Of course a 60s horror movie has to have wenches, and the wenching duties here are shared by Uta Levka and Sally Geeson (the slightly less talented sister of one of the great 70s scream queens, Judy Geeson). Both are more than adequate for their roles.

This is a movie that doesn’t seem to be all that highly thought of, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable slice of 60s gothic horror with a fine cast, excellent production values, brisk pacing and a high degree of technical competence. Plus it has voodoo, always a bonus. It might not quite measure up the Corman Poe films, but Corman’s Poe films are among the best gothic horror movies ever made. The Oblong Box has no real reason to feel ashamed of comparisons to such films.

The Region 4 DVD is perfectly acceptable and the picture quality is very good, so no complaints there.


Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

This was all set to be the next film of Michael Reeves, and one can only imagine what he might have done with the material. I can't imagine it would have been quite so dull with Reeves at the helm. This is workmanline stuff from Gordon Hessler, and the film makes a major error in not giving Lee and Price a suitably impressive scene togther.

Richard D Squires said...

Very nice post about a film that receives a lot of lack of respect. Visually, it's right up there with the best of the Hammer Films, I feel. And Shaun's comments about the direction are right on; Reeves would have really transformed this film into something special. Still, I do enjoy watching it, and wish there were similar films being made today!