The Oblong Box (1969 United Kingdom)

Owing virtually nothing to Edgar Allan Poe other than the title, American International Pictures (AIP) did like to insult the public’s intelligence. The critics of the time did not have much enthusiasm for this flick, which is often surprisingly nasty for that era, but I think this has enough entertainment value for at least one viewing. The director, Gordon Hessler, who replaced Michael Reeves after his untimely death, does a good job of making the film into a reasonably compelling narrative, even if he is a little too fond of extreme close-ups.

The film is also marvellously photographed, and in this respect at least it harks back to Roger Corman’s Poe films. Vincent Price (as Julian Markham) gives an impressively restrained performance (probably influenced by the favourable reviews he received for a similar turn in Witchfinder General) although his romance with Hilary Dwyer’s character is a little improbable, given that he is about thirty years older than she. Moving on… if there are two brothers and one of them is Vincent Price you know it’s going to be a strange family.

Julian Markham’s brother, Edward, is cursed by an African tribe through voodoo. He receives a hideous face, and is held prisoner for his own good inside the family mansion. Julian attempted to save his brother – who was kidnapped, nailed to a cross and given the disfigurement through a creepy ceremony. This was enacted because of the accidental death of a child by the trampling of Edward’s horse. Edward (Alister Williamson) had negotiated with an associate of Julian’s, Samuel Trench (Peter Arne) about being cured of his disfigurement through a witchdoctor. Unfortunately, Edward was quietly put to sleep and buried alive by his brother, who believed him to have died through the witchdoctor’s actions.

A scientist, Dr. J. Neuhartt (Christopher Lee), hires body snatchers to provide him with corpses for his research. One night the oblong box containing the body of Edward arrives to Neuhartt. Edward puts Neuhartt in a precarious position, knowing of his illegal activities, agreeing to keep mum about his secret in exchange for a place to stay. Edward even agrees to pay him, kind of a funding for his research. Edward becomes a pain in Neuhartt’s rear end though when he starts getting revenge on Trench and others for his premature burial.

Meanwhile, Julian enjoys a courtship with Lady Elizabeth, trying to move on with his life after the supposed death of Edward. Edward, wearing a crimson cloak over his face, kills a conman’s wife (pretending to be a prostitute as to rob unsuspecting punters of their money) which draws the attention of the po-lice, with Julian soon discovering that his brother is in fact still alive. Edward, through the work of the witchdoctor he finally finds through Trench, will understand just why he was cursed and this will only fuel his mania even further. This AIP effort utilizes great sets and locations throughout the  English countryside.

Price steps out of the villain role for a change, and because of this his part isn’t as conflicted or as interesting. In actuality, Alister Williamson, despite being hidden under the crimson cloak, is the real main character. Lee has a minor part as a doctor caught in the middle of a difficult situation, attached to body snatchers who rob graves for him and a psychotic madman who makes matters even worse. There is quite a fascinating conclusion in regards to Julian’s reaction to Edward’s bite and how he himself was inadvertently involved in his brother’s devastating condition. As expected, you do get to see Edward’s ghoulish face in a final grand reveal. But the screenplay takes an awfully long time to get us to that moment.

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