The Oblong Box takes its title from an Edgar Allan Poe tale – and nothing else. They both contain an oblong box, and the similarity ends there, but Gordon Hessler’s 1969 film is all the better for not being a miniature maritime mystery like the original short story. Instead it’s a horror piece as you would hope for from the American International Pictures studio with the likes of Vincent Price and Christopher Lee in the cast. Though Roger Corman isn’t behind the camera, from the inevitable artistic and eerie titles onwards, you know it’s all in the same sort of realm as other Corman/Price/Poe flicks of the late 50s/early 60s.
So far, so good, for acolytes of old-school schlock horror, but The Oblong Box is a bit of an oddity in that it’s underpinned by a heavy sense of colonial guilt and has a winding plot instead of being a straight-up scare story. The film’s main character is Sir Edward Markham (Alister Williamson) who is the unfortunate victim of facial disfigurement at the hands of an African tribe who curse him in front of his brother Julian (Vincent Price) in a colourful voodoo ceremony at the start. Back in England, Julian confines his brother to chains and imprisonment in the attic, but such incarceration doesn’t appeal to Edward who looks to make his escape. Soon he’s at large as “The Man in the Crimson Hood” and a story of serial murder, black magic, body-snatching and crossed-purposes unrolls in intriguing fashion.
Despite its flaws – the plot’s sometimes irritating indecision and some of the most unconvincing and feeble knife deaths in cinema history – The Oblong Box is an enjoyable dark little film that aficionados of Hammer horror and similarly sinister B-movie material will get a kick out of. The lack of overt hamminess makes it a slightly unique proposition though, and with its voodoo elements, multi-genre jumping and the fact that it’s the last of the AIP Poe-flavoured pics, it’s an interesting movie that’s worth a look in.
Sadly, the new DVD offers nothing more than scene selection and the standard trailer, though, to be fair, the trailer is fun. They just don’t make trailers like they used to, and The Oblong Box’s promotional ad is one such kitsch classic, delivering the expected grisly titles promising that “you’ll find real terror” as “the living dead live!”
Sadly, we don’t get Vincent Price doing the voiceover, and those who’ve searched out the film purely due to presence of Price and Lee (who plays a doctor who shelters Sir Edward and ends up tangled in proceedings) may be surprised at how little screentime they receive (the two horror legends never appear together in the movie). You can’t have it all, though, and though aspects of The Oblong Box may leave you slightly befuddled (Edgar Allan Poe would most definitely be scratching his head wondering what happened to his story of a ship journey), all in all it’s a pretty good independent motion picture with the required amount of gripping suspense and grimness to keep schlock fans satisfied.