Monday, 9 August 2010

The Oblong Box (1969)


Edgar Allan Poe's The Oblong Box

This troubled production from American International Pictures initially began life as the next project for young British filmmaker Michael Reeves. He had clearly impressed his backers with the strength of his third film Witchfinder General (1968). The death of Reeves during the pre-production of The Oblong Box was a major blow, not only to the film, but to British filmmaking in general. With the death of Reeves any ambition the film might have had began to dwindle and this was signposted by the arrival of the undistinguished Gordon Hessler as his directorial replacement. Hessler was a capable director, but one who rarely achieved any kind of inspiration - and this derivative and clichéd piece of gothic horror was badly in need of inspiration.

AIP had spent a great deal of the late 1960’s finding increasingly tenuous and flimsy ways to promote their horror films through the name of Edgar Allan Poe. The Poe/Corman/Price cycle had actually drawn to a close with The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). But this didn’t stop them distributing Witchfinder General as The Conqueror Worm or Corman’s adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward as The Haunted Palace (1963). The Oblong Box is another that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the poetic source material of the title. Instead we have a routine and predictable trudge through gothic period settings by way of a detour into an unconvincingly realised Africa. The subtext of the piece deals with imperialistic exploitation, and whilst this offers a potentially rewarding thematic layer to the proceedings it remains predictably untapped.

Vincent Price once again plays a gloomy aristocrat encamped in a gothic mansion and haunted by a guilty burden which drives the plot forward. At least the guilt here has a wider colonial implication, and is not totally in service to a petty tale of vengeance. The fortune of the Markham’s has been accrued through the blood, sweat, and tears, of slaves on an African plantation, and it is this crime against humanity that returns to punish them. This places The Oblong Box within a trend of British horror in the late 1960’s that sought to explore questions of colonialism and enact a variety of punishments on those seeking to exploit the dark continent. It makes an interesting comparison piece with Hammer’s Cornish double The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and The Reptile (1966). Whilst this film lacks the intelligence and stylishness of Hammer’s efforts it does at least try to dramatise the African aspect of the narrative with a series of flashbacks.

The gothic period setting is the films saving grace - it is particularly well rendered and one of the better examples. British gothic horrors excel in the areas of art direction and production design, often achieving magnificent results on miniscule budgets. Markham’s ancient mansion is suitably creepy, with atmospheric shadowy interiors and a large winding staircase. Hessler makes use of some redolent outdoor locations which includes an eerie lane and sinister woodlands. Another impressive set is Dr. Neuhart’s (Christopher Lee) home and laboratory - a place that conceals both the crimson hooded killer and the good doctor’s nefarious experiments. Lee’s silly grey wig is an unintentional highlight, and despite labouring under this he still invests the character with his usual gravitas and pathos. The only character with any depth, we witness Neuhart struggling with a number of moral dilemmas - these include the morality of bodysnatching in service of scientific discovery, and his reaction to blackmail. The anticipated clash between the horror icons Price and Lee never really materialises, which is something of a surprising let down considering this was the first time they had appeared in a film together. This remains a missed opportunity and one of the major faults of the film.

The secondary triumph of the film is Alister Williamson as Sir. Edward Markham who brings an abject pity and sympathy to his horribly disfigured character with just his voice. He cuts a distinctive dash in his hood and cape combo, and even the obligatory reveal of his shattered countenance doesn’t disappoint. Eventually (by way of a few innocent victims), the repressed guilt of the aristocratic Markham’s overflows into a fitting finale which sees the lame and feeble Sir. Julian justifiably punished for his African transgression. The main criticism of the film lies in its sluggish pacing. The Oblong Box is interminable in places with numerous bloated scenes running far longer than their narrative justification (a bawdy tavern scene for example seems to go on forever, as does the subsequent scene in which Sir. Edward is entertained by a whore). The film ultimately lacks the psychological depth and visual style which marked the Corman/Poe cycle, and also lacks the wit to be found in the productions of Hammer. The result is a curiously lifeless and empty shell of a movie only occasionally alleviated by some fine acting and impressive sets.

© Shaun Anderson - 2010


  1. Always been curious for this one, and The Haunted Palace as well, but the pacing on some of these films as you have mentioned can really try your patience, I mean sometimes you can just feel the producers stretching their running time with unnecesary dialog.

    Too bad about Reeves dying so soon in his career, Im sure he would have matured into a great director. If anything, Witchfinder General proved he had what it took to make it.

  2. Thanks for dropping by Franco - especially as this is a new record for me. My 9th review in a row to get at least one comment! Fortunately most of these slow gothic horror films compensate for pacing problems with arresting performances and wonderful art direction and production design - these are the only things that save THE OBLONG BOX from being an awful slog...totally agree about Reeves.

  3. Congrats man, your blog is growing in readers! I do enjoy the production values, all those cobweb filled houses, with old paintings of dead family members and the gothic architecture...the woods with the dead trees, love that stuff. Old school horror stuff, gotta love it.

    By todays standards all these things seem like cheesy horror movie cliches, but back in those days it wasnt, and I love revisiting that old school horror feeling from time to time.

  4. Great write up, Shaun. I've never seen The Oblong Box, but that poster is one of my favourites. Didn't realise it wasn't really an adaptation of Poe's short story. Still though, the opportunity to drool over Price AND Lee in one movie would convince me to check it out.

  5. Cheers James - its certainly worth a watch, but yes any resemblence to the original Poe tale is purely coincidental - there is a coffin in both, thats about it! The Price and Lee combo is probably the reason most would seek this obscurity out...but in a criminal piece of imcompetence the expected clash between the two horror stalwarts is distinctly underwhelming. Thanks for dropping by buddy!


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