Sunday, May 15, 2011

#282. The Oblong Box (1969)

Directed By: Gordon Hessler

Starring: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Rupert Davies

Tag line: "For the first time... the classic tale of the restless dead and their unspeakable hungers!"

Trivia:  Originally, the Markham brothers were meant to be twins and Price was to play both Julian and Edward

Released by American International in 1969, The Oblong Box is a late entry in a series of motion pictures based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Like many of the earlier Poe films (most of which were directed by Roger Corman), The Oblong Box stars Vincent Price, whose very appearance in a movie of this nature is cause for celebration. True to form, the great actor does not disappoint, providing an excellent turn as Julian Markham, a wealthy landowner who's taken it upon himself to safeguard a terrible family secret. But there's more to The Oblong Box than Price's masterful performance; the film also features an incredibly intriguing story, one filled with enough twists and turns to keep its audience guessing to the very end.

The year is 1865, and Julian Markham has just returned to England after spending time at his plantations in Africa. But he didn't come home alone. While in Africa, Julian witnessed a voodoo ceremony that left his brother, Edward (Alister Williamson), terribly disfigured and teetering on the brink of insanity. Kept locked away in his room, Edward longs for a chance to be normal once again, and employes the help of Trench (Peter Arne), the family lawyer, to assist him in breaking free. With money supplied by Edward, Trench hires the services of N'Galo (Harry Baird), a voodoo specialist who concocts a drug that will send Edward into a trance-like state, giving others the impression that he has died. The drug is effective, but before Trench has a chance to steal Edward's “body”, Julian places his brother in a coffin and nails it shut. Yet fate will intervene on Edward's behalf in the form of graverobbers employed by a Dr. Newhartt (Christopher Lee), a surgeon who experiments on the bodies of the deceased. Finally free, Edward's first move is to exact a little revenge against those who were only too happy to allow him to be buried alive.

Plot-wise, The Oblong Box bears no similarities whatsoever to Poe's short story, which was set on a sea voyage from South Carolina to New York. Yet the deviations from the original work will only bother the staunchest Poe aficionados, primarily because the film spins a fascinating tale in its own right, one ripe with mystery and suspense. The Oblong Box is a movie that jealously guards its secrets, chief among them being the appearance of Edward Markham's face. Like Julian, we witness the voodoo ceremony that disfigured Edward, yet we have no idea how deformed he actually is; the opening scenes are shown from Edward's point of view (as if looking through his eyes), and later on, his features are hidden behind a crimson mask. Those unfortunate few who do gaze upon him shrink in horror at the sight, yet we're left wondering how grotesque his appearance truly is. More than this, we have no idea why he was disfigured in the first place. What did he do to deserve such a punishment? These questions, and more besides, will be answered, but all in good time.

One could argue that The Oblong Box is a much more effective mystery than it is a horror film; the grim atmosphere so excellently crafted for earlier Poe-influenced works such as The Pit and the Pendulum is notably absent in The Oblong Box. But what this film lacks in the macabre, it more than makes up for in suspense, weaving a tale that manages to keep us planted firmly on the edge of our seats from start to finish.

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