Column: The Vault of Secrets: The Oblong Box (1969)

The Oblong Box (1969). Directed by: Gordon Hessler. Starring: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Rupert Davies, and Hillary Dwyer.

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[dropcap]W[/dropcap]elcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. We’ve had a string of pretty great movies here for a while now, but no good thing can last forever. We were bound to have a stinker in our midst, sooner or later. Tonight’s film probably earns that title.

Ostensibly a late entry in the Roger Corman/Vincent Price saga of Poe adaptations, The Oblong Box, like many of the other films in that franchise (especially the later ones) shares very little in common with Poe besides a title, in spite of a couple of premature burials, and the usual Gothic movie staples of graverobbers and a mad relative locked in the attic.

Instead, it joins a series of Gothic pictures from around the same period (Hammer’s The Reptile springs immediately to mind) that explore colonial guilt. Directed by Gordon Hessler (who worked with Price a few other times on Cry of the Banshee and Scream and Scream Again), it is notable mostly for featuring both Price and Christopher Lee, though they occupy parallel storylines and manage to hardly share any screen time at all. It also re-teams Price with Hillary Dwyer, whom he had just played opposite in the equally-unpleasant-but-much-better Witchfinder General. In this picture, Price plays a mostly good guy (with a skeleton in his closet here and there) and Dwyer’s love interest, as opposed to his villainous turn last time around.

The picture opens with a weirdly-shot and less-than-flattering portrait of African tribal life, as a witch doctor performs some kind of largely unexplained ceremony on an unseen man. Price’s character stumbles in and we get a close-up of his horrified face before cutting to the opening credits, which are shown over odd, drippy pictures, mostly of bloody eyeballs. From there, we cut to the requisite big, dark mansion, where we learn that the man in the ceremony was Price’s brother, who is now apparently being kept locked in a room in the attic, on account of being deformed and insane.

We get a deathlike trance and a premature burial, which are as close to Poe as the film ever comes, but once the maimed brother is dug up by the resurrection men and returns to life, the film becomes a sort of proto-slasher, as he goes about in a crimson hood to hide his mutilated face, and exacts his bloody revenge on those who he feels have wronged him. (Like most movies of its type, “bloody” in this case means lots of knives being dragged across throats, and lots of reddish tempura paint.)

The movie goes to great lengths (including loads of point-of-view shots) to avoid showing the villain’s face, but when it is finally revealed in the climactic moments, it’s actually pretty unremarkable. He mostly just looks as if his face is dirty and he maybe has a few too many nostrils. Not exactly a visage to instill mortal terror.

The Oblong Box has a weird and kind of repugnant tone, thanks in no small part to its less-than-commendable treatment of women and people of color. (Dwyer, at least, manages to emerge largely unscathed this time, which is a relief after her fate in Witchfinder General.) To understand the offness of the movie, it helps to know that it was originally going to be helmed by Michael Reeves, who had just finished directing Price, Dwyer and Rupert Davies in Witchfinder General the year before. It’s hard to say whether there was any real hope for The Oblong Box to become the kind of uncomfortable classic that Witchfinder General is, had the film stayed in Reeves’ more capable hands. Unfortunately, Reeves died during pre-production and The Oblong Box was handed over to Gordon Hessler. What we were left with is something that reflects only the more unpleasant aspects of Reeves’ film and none of the great ones.

That’s it for tonight’s program, but join us next time with Peter Cushing (about the only guy missing from tonight’s ensemble) on an Island of Terror!