Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Vincent Price Blogathon - The Oblong Box


Vincent Price and Christopher Lee share the screen in 1969's The Oblong Box.


When I was figuring out what movie to cover as part of the Vincent Price Blogathon that Realweegiemidget Reviews and Cinematic Catharsis are hosting, I wanted to go with a Vincent Price movie that was a little lesser known and would be a first time viewing for me. I ended up picking The Oblong Box because it was the first film to bring Price and his fellow genre icon Christopher Lee together on the screen, and because the plot synopsis made it sound like a precursor to my favorite horror sub-genre, the slasher, since it involves a masked man going around cutting throats.

Another decade would pass after the release of The Oblong Box before slashers became the big thing in horror, but what was big in horror in the '60s were Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. This film claims to be one, but it really has nothing to do with the Poe story it takes its title from, aside from the fact that a character does get put in a coffin (an oblong box). When the project was being developed by Michael Reeves - who was supposed to direct the film, but fell ill before filming began and had died of an overdose by the time it was released - and screenwriter Lawrence Huntington, it was going by the more fitting but less marketable (since it wasn't linked to Poe) title Man in the Crimson Hood. When Reeves left the project, he was replaced by Gordon Hessler, who worked with Christopher Wicking on a substantial rewrite. You can kind of tell in the finished film that it was a mixture of two different visions, because it's a bit of a bumpy ride.


Set in the 1860s, the story begins in Africa, where Price's character Julian Markham witnesses his brother Edward (Alister Williamson) being strung up and disfigured by a tribe for reasons we won't know until quite late in the film. Edward is prone to fits of madness after surviving that ordeal, so when the Markham brothers return to their family home in England, Julian decides to chain his brother up in an upstairs bedroom.

This is one of the issues with this film; none of the characters are particularly likeable. The best one of the bunch is Julian, but he's still a guy who holds some dark secrets, has some unnerving ideas on how to keep up appearances, and would rather keep his brother chained up than seek professional help. Sure, he can explain all of his decisions, but he still comes off as being a bit suspicious to me.


Julian is also dragged down a bit by the fact that Price, then in his late fifties, has to play some awkward scenes with Hilary Dwyer as his twenty-something fiancée Elizabeth, whose actions are still dictated by her father - and the age difference between Price and Dwyer is so great, Julian may well be older than Elizabeth's father.

Edward is dangerously crazy, but also somehow still coherent enough that he is able to plot an escape from the Markham home with the brothers' shady lawyer Trench (Peter Arne) behind Julian's back. It's not a simple escape, either. With the help of his sidekick Mark Norton (Carl Rigg), Trench has brought a witch doctor named N'Galo (Harry Baird) from Africa so N'Galo can cook up something for Edward to ingest that will make him look convincingly dead. The idea is that Trench will be able to take Edward's "corpse" from the Markham home and, after he gets his face fixed by N'Galo, Edward will be free.


Problem is, Julian doesn't want anyone to see Edward's disfigured corpse, so he has his brother's body put in a coffin that is immediately nailed shut. Trench isn't interested in putting any effort into getting Edward out of a nailed-shut box, so he just gives up on him at that point and instead focuses on granting Julian's request that he procure an unblemished corpse to stand in as Edward for the public funeral. Trench accomplishes this by simply murdering someone he owes money to and bringing that corpse to Julian.

Lucky for Edward, local surgeon J. Neuhartt (Christopher Lee, credited as a "special guest star") likes to experiment on corpses that his graverobbing lackeys have dug up from the local cemetery. They take Edward's coffin from the cemetery, bring it to Neuhartt, and when Neuhartt opens the coffin he finds that Edward is alive inside.


This convoluted set-up packed with too many questionable characters doing too many shady things takes up the first 39 minutes of the film's 96 minute running time. From that point on it tells the story of the Man in the Crimson Hood, with Edward wearing a crimson hood to hide his face as he sets off on a mission of revenge that involves killing anyone he believes has wronged him. People like Trench and Julian. And while doing this, without ever revealing his face, he also somehow manages to catch the romantic attention of Neuhartt's maid Sally (Sally Geeson).

Edward basically carries half of the film himself, and it's impressive that Alister Williamson was able to do this - and come off as a strong, intimidating figure - while delivering his lines through a crimson hood. Of course, the primary selling point is the fact that this movie gives viewers the chance to see Vincent Price and Christopher Lee share the screen... and they do share the screen, and exchange some lines of dialogue, for about 35 seconds. It's simultaneously cool and disappointing. Thankfully, Price and Lee were in a couple more movies together, so this wasn't our only chance to see them interact.


As for the slasher aspect that helped draw me to this movie, it does make for a few good scenes. With the slasher's popularity still years down the line it's understandable that this doesn't really feel like much of a slasher, but Edward does score a few interesting kills, including a sequence in which the man in the crimson hood enters a house of ill repute and has a violent encounter with a thieving prostitute and her male accomplice.

 

The Oblong Box is the sort of entry in Price's filmography that gives some the mistaken impression that he worked with Hammer Films. This has the look and feel of a lesser Hammer movie, the popular Victorian era England setting (specifically 1865 in this case, which was 16 years after Poe died), and the presence of Hammer star Lee. Price never did star in a Hammer movie, though. This was an American International Pictures release, and it's a fine movie; as in, not bad, not awesome, just fine. Very middle of the road.

There's nothing really special about this one aside from the cast, but we get to see Price and Lee being reliably great, and we get to see Edward dish out some bloody vengeance, so it's watchable and enjoyable... right up until the nonsensical final moments, when the film leaves us with two separate shocking endings. Given that these endings sort of put the same character in two places at the same time, I think they should have just gone with one of these endings instead of including both of them.



7 comments:

  1. Thanks for joining the blogathon with a more random choice - this does look a good one for this cast too. BTW It's Realweegiemidget not Realweeniemidget! Can you please change that, thanks!

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    1. Thanks, and sorry for the name mix-up. I have dachshunds, so I blame it on the fact that I'm always talking about weenie dogs. It's fixed now.

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  2. Thought-provoking review. This isn't the only time Price played a part a little outside of his age range (The Tomb of Ligeia comes to mind) but he pulls it off more often than not.

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  3. Nice review, Cody! It's a shame this movie appears to be such a mixed bag. It seems that it had the makings of something much better (especially with Price and Lee starring). Thanks for joining the blogathon!

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  4. You're right, this film does sound like a bumpy ride, but it also sounds like it's worth checking out.

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  5. I've always enjoyed The Oblong Box, but you are right. It definitely is a mixed bag. While the film has its good points, in some ways it is a disappointment given it is the first time Vincent Price and Christopher Lee appeared together. I have to wonder if Reeves hadn't fallen ill and had to leave the film, if it would have been better?

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  6. Thanks for reading and commenting! This was an interesting first-time watch. The movie wasn't great, but I will probably watch it again someday.

    - Cody

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