The Oblong Box (1969)

AUGUST 6, 2010


One week after the awesome Theatre Of Blood, I found myself watching another damn good Vincent Price movie. He doesn't have as much screentime in The Oblong Box, but it's still another meaty role that toes the line between hero and villain, and he's got Christopher Lee picking up the slack from his reduced screentime, as well as what is sort of the first masked slasher (that I know of anyway). In fact, after it was done, I considered trying to make it a new tradition, where I'd watch a Price film every Friday, but I'd probably run out quickly and it would interfere with new release openings and other scheduled stuff, so it's best to just enjoy them as they come naturally.

My biggest (pretty much only) problem with the movie is that Price disappears for too long during the 2nd act. His brother (Alister Williamson, the aforementioned "slasher") takes center stage, as does Lee (who is curiously billed as a special guest star, despite having just as much screentime as Price), as a doctor who employs grave-robbers to bring him fresh bodies to run his experiments on (which, oddly, never really have any real bearing on the plot). The masked guy knows about the grave-robbing and blackmails Lee into letting him stay there and receive treatments, and this sort of stuff is the main focus for a bit too long. And when things finally return to Price, it's like they skipped a giant chunk of his story - at one point we are told his fiance's father has sent her to Italy to marry someone else (the good old days!), but the next time we see him they have just married. Not that the Lee/Williamson stuff is bad, but I would have liked if they cut back to Price a bit more during this section of the story.

Otherwise, really solid stuff. The plot isn't complicated, but it's far less one-note than many other films of this period (including Theatre), with numerous agendas and several characters with an actual stake in the story. Everyone sort of has a reason to hate or at least wish ill will towards the majority of the other characters, which results in a lot of tension, because I had no idea where the story would end up. It's a shame that they couldn't have found a way for Lee and Price to have some sort of beef with each other, because as a result they only share a brief scene together near the end, one that's seemingly just there to get them in frame together - but on the other hand, there were enough rivalries and feuds already, any more and it might have started to get silly.

Price is sort of the hero (he lets his brother get fucked up for something he did, but otherwise he's a good guy), but he still gets to engage in some devilish behavior and display some of his trademark smarm. I particularly enjoyed the scene where he blackmails the family lawyer into finding a suitable body to use for his brother's wake, so no one would have to see his disfigurement. The lawyer protests at first, saying he's no criminal, to which Price instantly retorts: "You're a forger and embezzler, and now you're a grave robber." Hahaha, awesome. Lee is also sort of a flawed hero more than an outright villain - his experiments seem to be for good purposes, and while he never turns in his "guest" despite his crimes, he doesn't condone or assist him either.

Even the killer exists in a sort of a gray area (charcoal?). He only intentionally kills those who wronged him or in self-defense. He could have easily killed some others, but if he had no reason to do any damage, he just runs away from the situation. There's even a scene where a bar full of drunks are seen harassing some of the hookers, and I thought he'd turn avenger and kill the dudes, but no - it was apparently just padding. The whole sequence actually probably could have been removed, as it's about 10 minutes of screen-time (mostly devoted to ladies dancing, drunks fighting, etc) that only accomplishes a single thing (proving that the masked killer was in the area). Seems to me they could have done this in a lot less time, in a more direct way.

The killer's look is pretty sinister - it's a simple red mask stretched across his face, with tiny slits for eyes (that we can't see). It's not until the very end of the picture that we see his face, and it's really not all that bad, just some boils and discoloration. I actually suspected that perhaps the brother was a TWIN brother and that Price was playing both roles (which would explain his "absence"), but no, so I'm surprised they held the reveal for so long. But I guess that's just 40 years of horror movies since this one numbing me to disturbing visuals - I bet the face WAS completely horrifying back in 1969, whereas today it's something that wouldn't seem out of place on an acid burn victim on CSI or whatever. But the kill scenes are terrific bits of stand-alone suspense, with the first (a mark is on a coach that suddenly stops) being a particular highlight. A lot of these old films I like for their lack of pretension or because they feature great actors who are really interested in doing the film (as opposed to today's bored TV actors phoning in performances in crappy remakes, i.e. Dylan Walsh in The Stepfauxther), but it's rare I'm actually finding them to be suspenseful as well.

As for its Poe relation - I have no idea. I never read Poe's story, but apparently the title is the only thing they share. I wonder if this sort of thing annoyed audiences back in the day. I bet nowadays if someone were to "adapt" a Stephen King or Clive Barker short story and keep only the title, there would be outrage. Christ, our audiences can't even accept changing a character's name or the location - this sort of thing would probably send them into a coma.

Director Gordon Hessler was on hand for a Q&A moderated by Mick Garris (who knows a thing or two about doing adaptations). It went a bit long (resulting in me falling asleep in the first ten minutes of the 2nd film, Scream and Scream Again, so I ended up going home. From what I saw it wasn't really a horror movie, more of a spy thriller - and the print was the most faded (pink) I've ever seen. Perhaps I'll revisit it (for the first time) on DVD.), but it was an informative talk all the same. Hessler is probably best known for The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, but he did a number of these films with Price, as well as some work on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, so there was a lot of ground to cover. He told a great story about how some dignitaries from Africa were visiting the studio and how Price was asked to join them for lunch, for dog and pony show type stuff, but Price ended up discussing African art with them all and really impressing them with his knowledge. He also made a terrific point about Ray Harryhausen vs. today's CGI "geniuses", how these newer movies have credits in multiple columns to fit all the names it takes to make these things that often don't look very good, and yet Ray did everything by himself.

Both films are on a dual disc MGM release, which is thankfully still in print. Pick it up! Oblong Box is definitely worth whatever the price is, and Scream can be seen as a free bonus (assuming it doesn't improve from its rather confusing and not very engaging opening reel, which is all I saw before nodding off - for all I know it's actually a better film). I'm surprised I don't hear about it more often - I don't think I had ever even heard the title until I saw the listing on the Egyptian calendar. Let's get this movie out of slight obscurity!

What say you?

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  1. Absolutely love Vincent Price.
    Haven't seen The Oblong Box, will have to put that on the list of movies I must see.

  2. I've always thought it was strange [or well, ironic?] that this movie often gets paired up with Scream and Scream Again. I know that Lee and Price appear in both of them, but there aren't a lot of thematic similarities between them.

    [it's ironic, because a co-worker gave me old vhs copies of both films and "frankenstein and the monster from hell" for my birthday back in '99.]

  3. "I bet nowadays if someone were to "adapt" a Stephen King or Clive Barker short story and keep only the title, there would be outrage. "

    You've not seen "The Lawnmower Man", then? :-)

    Lucky you if you haven't, BTW.

  4. I thought of that, but that at least took the basic premise of a guy being hired to mow the lawn - this didn't even do that much, based on the synopsis I read from Wikipedia (which doesn't even involve someone being buried alive)

  5. I think Chris Lee was probably billed as a "Guest Star" because he was under contract to a different studio and was loaned out for this film.

  6. I love Price's horror movies. But unfortunately, i've seen them all and there is nothing more for me to discover. I read Poe's "The Oblong Box" right before watching it on DVD and it doesn't resemble anything like the movie. A lot of movies in the 1960s were trying to cash in on the Poe-Corman cycle's mojo.

    But this movie is good nonetheless. "Scream and Scream Again" however, is a low point for VP. But he would bounce back with Phibes and his Swan song, "Theater of Blood". Yes he did "Madhouse" afterwards as well, but it wasn't well received (though I really liked it). After 1974, horror movies had changed and the AIP/Hammer films went out of fashion (but I still continue to discover them on DVD). I think the only leading horror role of note he did since then was in 1980's "Monster Club" and it was an anthology film.

    The 60s (and early 70 s) were to me, the true golden age of horror

  7. I actually quite liked Scream and Scream Again; more so than The Oblong Box.


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