Oblong Box

Hessler and Price are together again (for the first time) for a Poe adaptation that actually has a little something to do with Poe, or at least as much as any AIP Poe film has to do with Poe. Poe’s short story, “The Oblong Box,” has to do with a man who witnesses the obsession of an artist friend on a ship with an oblong shipping crate. So committed is the man, seeming delirious and mad, to this box that when the ship is wrecked during a storm, he sinks to the bottom of the ocean with the box rather than abandon it. Not to spoil the surprise, but it was a coffin containing his dead wife, though no one knew of the contents lest they refuse to travel overseas with a corpse. Hessler’s film does indeed contain a coffin that is referred to as an oblong box. And there is an artist, though he himself has no coffin. Beyond that, this film has as much to do with Poe as does the average movie in which someone inherits a wily, diaper-wearing ape that solves a crime.

Vincent Price stars as Sir Julian Markham, a wealthy member of the British gentry who we first meet in Africa as his brother, Edward, is strung up and disfigured in a voodoo ritual for some horrible transgression he has committed against the native peoples. Upon their return home, Edward’s sanity deteriorates and Julian must keep his mad, hideous brother locked in an upstairs room while Julian himself attempts to lead a normal life with his bride-to-be, Elizabeth (Hilary Dwyer, once again). Edward, though losing his mind, is scheming with the family lawyer, Trench, to fake his own death using more voodoo so that he can be free of the confines in which his brother has placed him. Nothing goes as planned, however, and rather than being freed, Edward ends up buried alive and abandoned by Trench. Luckily for Edward, his grave is robbed by body snatchers working for the local surgeon, Dr. Neuharrt (none other than Christopher Lee), who is always in need of fresh cadavers for his experiments. Edward vows revenge on those who left him to die in the grave, just as he vows to find a black magic cure for his affliction and the truth behind why he was disfigured in the first place.

Hessler, working with a script from frequent AIP writers Lawrence Huntington and Christopher Wicking, has crafted a complex tale with multiple plot points that must be woven together. It’s ambitious for a horror film and for AIP to launch into such a labyrinthine narrative, doubly so when it is injected with all the civil rights politics that surround the movie’s African prologue. The Markhams are plantation owners in Africa, keeping a host of slaves. Upon his return from the so-called Dark Continent, Julian seems to have had some sort of social and racial awakening and comments on the evils committed by the white man in Africa. Horror and science fiction films have often been at the forefront of tackling tough social and political issues in the guise of a tale about some monster or invading aliens. Throughout the 1950s, much of the rhetoric was decidedly one-sided and conservative, motivated as it was by the Cold War and Red Scare. The Oblong Box is a product of its time, the late 1960s, and reflects a more liberal and open-minded view of race and the need to own up to the atrocities committed during the colonial era – which, remember, had really only ended twenty or twenty-five years earlier – and then only to pass from colonialism by a nation-state to a sort of pseudo-colonialism perpetrated by large businesses. The Oblong Box’ more progressive politics are similar, then to the same director’s more liberal take on good versus evil, Christianity versus Paganism in Cry of the Banshee.

Of course, it’s still an AIP gothic horror film, so whatever politics may be on offer are wrapped in a tale about a disfigured madman coving his face with a crimson mask as he slits the throats of those who wronged him. And now that you mention it, why yes there is a scene of drunken, bawdy revelry in a lower class inn where people wave beer mugs about and buxom wenches dance on the tables and have their bosoms revealed. After all, AIP knows what people want, and people want buxom wenches dancing on tables. AIP’s gothic “Poe” films are often compared to Hammer Studio’s gothic films, which obvious influence heavily the look of AIP’s films. Those comparisons were bound to get more common in the late 60s, early 1970s when the two studios teamed up for the first time in what would seem to be an obvious good match. The result was Hammer’s superior vampire film, The Vampire Lovers, the first in the Karnstein vampire trilogy (which continued with the vastly inferior Lust for a Vampire and wonderful Twins of Evil) and the first Hammer film to feature nudity. Apparently someone at AIP told the reserved Brits that hey, it’s the 1970s and it’s okay to show some breasts along with all the cleavage.

AIP, for their part, found themselves with the services of Hammer legend Christopher Lee, and it doesn’t take a genius to know that the first thing they should do with the man is team him up with Vincent Price. Unfortunately, AIP seemed lost as to exactly how to use Lee, and so this screen pairing of two of the great icons of horror is more an exercise is wasted opportunity than it is the celebration and masterpiece it should be. Lee’s doctor possesses very little character. We know he pays to have corpses delivered to him so he can expand his craft, but considering the fact that just about every doctor in a gothic horror movie does the same, that’s hardly a defining characteristic. All in all, he’s very dull despite Lee bringing his usual air of authoritative dignity to the role. What’s worse, however, is that he and Price have only a single scene together, at the very end of the film, and it lasts for but a few brief seconds. Really, now! Why put Lee and Price together in a film then not put them together in the film? Lee is wasted in a throw-away role, and the film fails utterly to capitalize on this historic meeting of horror superstars. Or lack of meeting, I suppose I should say.

The film’s other major mistake is ever bothering to show Sir Edward’s horrible disfigurement. I mean, I know they have to do the big reveal in the final showdown between he and Julian, but the result is decidedly less than it should be. When you build a character up throughout the entire film as being the very picture of nightmarish terror, you have to come up with something better than some oatmeal on the cheek and a silly piggy nose. He looks like the doctor in that episode of The Twilight Zone where the beautiful woman thinks she is ugly because she doesn’t have a wretched piggy face. Up until this point, the crimson mask has been effective and even a bit eerie. It winds up being much more frightening than the face beneath it despite attempts at the contrary. I guess it’s the old Lovecraft conundrum, meaning that any adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft tale is doomed to failure because his stories revolve around beings so absolutely horrifying that simply looking at them will drive the sanest man completely mad. There’s no way to adequately realize that on screen, and so film adaptations are inevitably letdowns when the monster makes its appearance. Likewise for Edward’s monstrous face. The film would have been better off to never show it. Cry of the Banshee was wise enough to never show the werewolf creature in its entirety, because it knew it looked silly. Wrapped in shadows, it was rather effective, however, and The Oblong Box should have kept Edward’s face a mystery.

The Oblong Box has some other problems, as most of AIP’s post-Roger Corman films tended to have. It’s a very talky movie, though unlike Cry of the Banshee, the conversation is more interesting if for no other reason than much of it involves Vincent Price. This is one of the more subdued films in the AIP gothic horror canon. The murders are directed with style and are fairly tame by the standards set in other films. There’s blood, sure, but not much blood, and the camera lingers only slightly over the carnage. In addition, there are no torture scenes and, excepting one would-be robber-prostitute, the women of the film are mercifully free from the cruelty being perpetrated.

Hessler’s direction, like much of the film, is reserved. Maybe even a tad uninspired though perfectly competent. His biggest problem, as it would be in many of his AIP horror films, is the pace. The Oblong Box has several good moments. No great ones, but plenty to satisfy. Unfortunately the stretch between those moments seems much longer than it is or should be. There is also a fair amount of padding, more than one would want in a film that runs just over ninety minutes. The bawdy alehouse sequence goes on for too long, and conversations seem to drag on for a few minutes more than they need to. There are very few surprises in the film, so watching the lead-up get drawn out “in anticipation” is irritating at times. That said, the twist ending and revelation, though also not exactly a surprise by the time you get to it, is still effective. Though it has nothing to do with Poe, Poe probably would have approved.

Both Price and Lee give good performances, but both of them also seem to betray a certain lack of enthusiasm. Price, in particular, is uncharacteristically subdued, playing as he is the more or less “straight” man. But it’s not his fault. His character, like Lee’s, is given very little of interest to do. His job consists mostly of syrupy “let’s begin our lives anew” scenes with his wife-to-be or moderately aghast, “but surely that can’t be!” scenes that are never as urgent as they should be. Hessler simply can’t sustain the film through the doldrums, where as a director like Hammer’s Terence Fisher or even Roger Corman could make down-time in his films every bit as interesting as the parts where Peter Cushing was driving a stake through someone’s heart. There is no real tension in the film.

With Lee is a tiny role and Price confined to looking forlorn in his country estate, the bulk of the film’s action falls onto the shoulders of Alistair Williamson as Sir Edward. And since he spends most of the movie with a bag over his head, it’s difficult to connect with him. The best scene involves his being taken awkwardly by two friendly drunks to the local brothel for the aforementioned rowdy alehouse scene that every AIP film had to have. It’s a moment of humor in an otherwise humorless film. I didn’t realize that so many beautiful women would be so willing to bed a guy walking around with a red sack over his face. Maybe it’s worth trying sometime. Williamson, like Lee, appeared in a number of Hammer productions including The Evil of Frankenstein, Curse of the Werewolf, and The Gorgon. He also went on to a smaller role alongside Vincent Price in The Abominable Dr. Phibes. His character in The Oblong Box, like the movie itself, is too reserved to be fully effective. He manages to be a charmer even with a hood covering his wicked voodoo face, but his fits of homicidal rage are not effectively actualized. He ends up being rather dull for a hooded maniac suffering a voodoo curse.

As you know by now, I have a soft spot for gothic horror films from this era of filmmaking, as well as for anything with Vincent Price. The Oblong Box is certainly not the zenith of his collaboration with AIP for the Poe cycle. That came in movies like Masque of the Red Death, Haunted Palace, and The Conqueror Worm (aka The Witchfinder General). Compared to those, The Oblong Box and Price’s other outings with Hessler definitely fall well into the range of “lesser” works. That said, The Oblong Box is not without its charm. Price’s character is complex even though he’s more reserved that usual, and the revelation about what happened to him and his brother in Africa is a nice twist that makes the film’s criticism of colonialism and racism something more intelligent than a simple black and white (if you’ll excuse me) morality call. For most of the film, Julian is a likable character, though his willingness to snatch a body in order to hide the fact at a funeral that his brother was turned into a creature hints at a darker tendency that is further exposed in the film’s excellent (minus the pigface make-up for Edward) finale.

The supporting cast buoyed by Peter Arne (Khartoum, Murders in the Rue Morgue, Straw Dogs) as Trench is solid, and the music is effective. Set design and art direction is also typically good. AIP may not have been quite as good at this stuff as Hammer, but they were no slouches, and everything looks authentic and gorgeous. These positive elements conspire with my innate love of these kinds of movies to push The Oblong Box just into the lower end of my “like it” column. Seasoned fans and completists like myself will roll with the film’s slower portions and appreciate the positive aspects. It’s certainly not the first AIP gothic horror film I’d recommend, nor the first Vincent Price film. It’s not a film about which one should get especially excited, but I certainly didn’t mind spending some time with it.