The road to becoming a director took a few twists and turns for Berlin-born British director Gordon Hessler. Arriving in America as a teenage in the waning days of WWII, he worked on short films and documentaries before finding work in television as a story reader, story editor and eventually associate producer and director of a few episodes of Alfred Hitchcock’s TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (later The Alfred Hitchcock Hour). While he made his directorial debut with the low budget The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die (AKA Catacombs) in 1965, he wouldn’t get his big break until American International Pictures asked him to take over directing duties for a project he was working on as a producer, The Oblong Box. Previously released on Blu-ray by Kino (via licensing agreement with MGM), the company has resurrected the movie for a new Blu-ray release.
The Production: 3.5/5
In 1865 England, Julian Markham (Vincent Price) has his brother Sir Edward (Alister Williamson) locked in his mansion room due to a grotesque disfigurement – and subsequent decline in mental health – in an African voodoo ceremony because of a transgression against the natives. Sir Edward becomes tired of captivity and tries to fake his death – with help in order to escape; however, the plot goes awry when Julian truly believes Edward has died and has him buried alive. When he’s unearthed by grave robbers, he takes refuge at the home of Dr. Jeremy Neuhartt (Christopher Lee), who’s persuaded to do so by the threat of blackmail. Thus begins a campaign of vengeance and bloodshed with a twist involving the real reason how Sir Edward was disfigured.
Though an attempt by AIP to cash in on the success of Witchfinder General (1968), The Oblong Box bears little in relation to the Edgar Allan Poe short story the title comes from. The story – based on a script by Lawrence Huntington and fleshed out (no pun intended) by Christopher Wicking – tackles the classic Gothic elements while also adding elements of the anti-colonial resentment that was circulating among the new wave of British horror films at the time; in affect, this film was one of the breaks from the old guard of horror – represented by Hammer Films – that dominated the British market at the time but would soon be on the wane. Further burnishing the script here is the camerawork of John Coquillon, whose wonderful use of the Gothic aesthetic would serve itself well in AIP’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights the year after this movie’s release; a bigger plus is the fact that the characters are portrayed in shades of gray in terms of morality rather than just flat out good and evil, as most horror films tended to do in this era. Finally, under Gordon Hessler’s direction (originally slated to just produce the film, he stepped in the director’s chair when the studio’s original choice, Michael Reeves, had overdosed prior to the start of production), the film crackles with atmosphere as well as style; while the violence depicted in the movie may seem tame compared to today’s standards, it’s worth noting that the film was released here with five minutes trimmed that left the movie incoherent and a little disfigured like Sir Edward. However, The Oblong Box has survived over the years as one of the films coming at the intersection of old guard’s decline and the ascendancy of the new school of British horror that dared to use the old tropes to tell something new.
As the tragic hero Julian, Vincent Price once again brought his signature style to the part with great ease; he would work with Gordon Hessler two more times with Scream and Scream Again and Cry of the Banshee (both 1970). Given a rare major part, character actor Alister Williamson spends much of the film masked up (with the exception of the big reveal at the climax) as the disfigured Sir Edward; his voice was also dubbed by an uncredited Robert Rietty. Christopher Lee – billed here as a special guest star – spends more time on screen with Williamson rather than Price as the surgeon Dr. Neuhartt, but Price and Lee would appear together in a couple of films after this one, including Hessler’s aforementioned Scream and Scream Again and later in Pete Walker’s horror nostalgia piece House of the Long Shadows (1983); Hilary Dwyer – whom AIP was trying to build up as one of their main leading ladies on their roster – makes the most of her screen time as Julian’s fiancée Elizabeth. Rounding out the cast here are Rupert Davies as the painter Kemp, Sally Geeson as the housemaid Sally, who does briefly see some humanity in the hooded Sir Edward, Peter Arne as the duplicitous family lawyer Trench, Maxwell Shaw as the ill-fated landlord Hacket, Carl Rigg as Trench’s companion Norton, Harry Baird as the witchdoctor N’Galo and Uta Levka as the prostitute Heidi.
3D Rating: NA
The 96-minute director’s cut of the film is presented in its original 1:85:1 aspect ratio, likely taken from the same HD transfer used in Kino’s 2015 Blu-ray release of the movie. Film grain, color palette, skin tones and fine details appear to be faithfully represented here with only minimal cases of scratches, dirt, tears, and dust present here. Overall, this release – in terms of visual quality – is on par with Kino’s previous Blu-ray release and still likely the best the movie will ever look on home video.
The film’s original mono soundtrack is presented on a DTS-HD Master Audio track for this release. Dialogue, sound mix and the music score by Harry Robertson (credited here as Harry Robinson) are all presented faithfully with minimal cases of distortion, flutter, crackling, popping or hissing present here. This release is on par with the previous Kino Blu-ray in terms of audio quality and still likely the best the movie will ever sound on home video.
Special Features: 3.5/5
Commentary by film historian Steve Haberman – Ported over from the 2015 Kino Blu-ray, Haberman goes over the details of the film’s production, bios of the cast and crew, differences between the 91-minute theatrical cut by AIP and the 96-minute director’s cut and why Gordon Hessler’s horror movies at AIP are worth reappraising.
Edgar Allan Poe’s Annabel Lee (9:47) – The 1969 short film – with a hybrid of live action photography and still photographer and narrated by Vincent Price – is also carried over from the 2015 Kino Blu-ray.
Radio Spots (2) (1:35) – Two vintage radio promos, new to this Blu-ray edition of the movie.
Theatrical Trailer (1:56)
Bonus KLSC Trailers – Master of the World, The Raven (1963), Twice-Told Tales, The Comedy of Terrors, The Last Man on Earth, The Tomb of Ligeia, Scream and Scream Again, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, Theater of Blood, House of the Long Shadows & The Crimson Cult
A decent hit at the box office for AIP – despite some poor critical notices – The Oblong Box is a middle-tier Vincent Price horror vehicle that nonetheless his its upsides that makes it worth reappraising. Kino has done a good job bringing this one back into print, with carrying over the solid HD transfer and legacy special features (with a couple of vintage radio spots new to this release). Highly recommended and worth getting if you missed out the first time.
Amazon.com: The Oblong Box (Special Edition): Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Alister Williamson, Uta Levka, Rupert Davies, Sally Geeson, Hilary Heath, Maxwell Shaw, Michael Balfour, Godfrey James, Rupert Davies, Sally Geeson, Ivor Dean, Uta Levka, James Mellor, Danny Daniels, John Barrie, Hira Talfrey, John Wentworth, Betty Woolfe, Martin Terry, Anne Clune, Jackie Noble, Ann Barrass, Janet Rossini, Zeph Gladstone, Tara Fernando, Tony Thawnton, Anthony Bailey, Richard Cornish, Colin Jeavons, Andreas Malandrinos, Hedger Wallace, Martin Wyldeck, Oh! Ogunde Dancers, Gordon Hessler: Movies & TV
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