Vincent Price and Christopher Lee – two scions of 1960s horror – together, yet anyone expecting a clash of the giants would be sorely disappointed as they only share one short scene. This is a typical American International Pictures venture, based even more typically on an Edgar Allan Poe story, with some stylistic direction – the extreme close-up never more effectively utilized – from Gordon Hessler in his third feature.
Given that German-born Hessler (Catacombs/The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die, 1965) was a last-minute substitute for English director Michael Reeves (Witchfinder General, 1968), he made an exceptionally good job of a complicated plot. The production was even more complicated than that since it was originally intended as a Spanish co-production to be shot in Spain. And at one point writer Lawrence Huntingdon (The Vulture, 1966), who did have form as a director (Death Drums Along the River, 1963), was reportedly also carrying out producer-director duties.
What seems like a mishmash of different stories – African sorcery, grave-robbing, disfigurement, forgery, blackmail, lifetime imprisonment, medical experiment, buried alive, a monster in a scarlet mask – soon comes together in a tense tale of retribution and revenge.
Nineteenth century English aristocrat Julain Markham (Vincent Price) has withdrawn to his country manor, for unknown reasons distancing himself from his fiancée Elizabeth (Hilary Dwyer), but in reality to conceal from the world the fact that he has locked up his own brother, Sir Edward (Alister Williamson). When the brother, a disfigured monster, escapes he embarks on a murder spree.
The various storylines keep the narrative sufficiently entangled to sustain tension. Despite what may appear to a modern audience as primitive special effects, several scenes are bone-chilling largely through directorial manipulation. The Gothic look – graveyards, castles, the village – adds to the atmosphere. The violence was trimmed in America to avoid an “R” rating, but led to the film being banned in Australia.
There is more overt sexuality than normal, a scheming whore Heidi (Uta Levka) tempting a man with her bare breasts, and maid Sally (Sally Geeson) entranced by the monster.
The various plot strands appeared to confuse critics at the time and even now the film receives comments that it is “vague” but at a time when Hammer’s output usually comprised a straightforward – and somewhat limited narrative – I found AIP’s approach to this picture a welcome development. The slowly emerging story set the film up as much as a thriller as a horror.
It’s a bit of a reversal for Vincent Price (Witchfinder General, 1968) to be playing the good guy but that works to the movie’s advantage because you spent most of the time thinking this is just a scam and at some point he will show his true colors. Hilary Dwyer (Witchfinder General) is excellent and Sally Geeson (What’s Good for the Goose, 1969) is an example of the type of woman attracted to rather than revulsed by a killer.
Well worth a look if only to enjoy the distinctive Hessler style.
4 thoughts on “The Oblong Box (1969) ***”
Great review; I did catch non-edited version. You’re right, Price was excellent as non-bad guy…
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Apologies for the delay in my response. Glad you enjoyed it. Sometimes when I dip back to Price’s earlier career I can see elements of his later bad guy persona but sometimes he is doing something quite different.
Have you seen The Vulture? I’m still recovering from that one…
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I’ve got that on my list. Although generally unsung, Huntingdon had my approval early on for The Franchise Affair, great thriller based on the Josephine Tey book.