‘Some things are better left buried’
The Oblong Box is a 1969 American-British horror film about an aristocrat who keeps his disfigured brother locked in his manor house. The latter occasionally escapes and causes mayhem in the local village.
Produced and directed by Gordon Hessler (Scream and Scream Again; Scream Pretty Peggy; Cry of the Banshee; KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park) from a screenplay written by Lawrence Huntington (The Vulture), with additional dialogue by Christopher Wicking. Executive produced by Louis M. Heyward.
The American International Pictures (AIP) production stars Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Rupert Davies, Uta Levka, Sally Geeson, Peter Arne, Alister Williamson and Hilary Dwyer.
The soundtrack score was composed by Harry Robinson (Twins of Evil and many others).
Like The Mummy (1959), The Reptile (1965) and The Ghoul (1974), the film’s story details guilt-ridden Britons paying a bitter price for their colonial crimes. Ostensibly part of AIP’s Edgar Allan Poe series, this film has nothing to do with Poe’s story of the same name, apart from the title.
England, 1865: Having been grotesquely disfigured in an African voodoo ceremony for a transgression against the native populace, Sir Edward Markham (Alister Williamson) is kept locked in his room by his guilt-ridden brother, Sir Julian (Vincent Price).
Tiring of his captivity, Sir Edward plots to escape by faking his death. With the help of the crooked family lawyer, Trench (Peter Arne), they hire witchdoctor N’Galo (Harry Baird) to concoct a drug to put Sir Edward into a death-like trance. Before Trench has time to act, Julian finds his ‘dead’ brother and puts him in the oblong box.
Embarrassed by his brother’s appearance, Julian asks Trench to find a proxy body for Sir Edward’s lying in state. Trench and N’Galo murder landlord Tom Hacket (Maxwell Shaw) and offer his corpse to Julian.
After the wake, Trench and his young companion Norton (Carl Rigg), dispose of Hacket’s body in a nearby river, while Julian has Sir Edward buried. Now free of his brother, Julian marries his young fiance, Elizabeth (Hilary Dwyer), while Trench, Norton and N’Galo go their separate ways.
Sir Edward is left buried alive until he is dug up by graverobbers and delivered to Dr Neuhartt (Christopher Lee). Neuhartt opens the oblong box and is confronted by the resurrected Sir Edward. With his first-hand knowledge of his illegal activities, Sir Edward blackmails the doctor into sheltering him. Sir Edward then conceals his face behind a crimson hood and embarks on a vengeful killing spree…
The Oblong Box is a reasonably entertaining film if taken on face value. Hessler might not have been an imaginative filmmaker, but he was certainly an efficient one, and he keeps the pace fast and ensures that the film looks good, even if it lacks the style of its predecessors.
David Flint, MOVIES and MANIA
“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…” 2,500 Movies Challenge
” …runs out of steam near the end (the climax is rather perfunctory after all the buildup it gets) but it’s entertaining while it’s rolling along and horror vets will get a kick out of Price and Lee’s work, even if they never really get to share a proper scene together. In short, The Oblong Box is a minor but reasonably entertaining entry in American International Pictures’ cycle of Poe adaptations…” All Movie
“The film, which features the first co-starring appearance by Lee and Price, is surprisingly effective, though over-elaborate, and is excellently photographed by Coquillon.” Phil Hardy (editor), The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror
“Despite some early histrionics, the natives in The Oblong Box are far from out-of-control heathens. They actually represent the horrors of the colonization of Africa, a last-minute script edit made by writer Christopher Wicking […] Sort of like The Ghost and the Darkness (and, God help us all, Curse of the Voodoo), the British colonizers incur the wrath of mystical forces from the “Dark Continent” as a result of their evil actions…” Black Horror Movies
” …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…” Horror Movie a Day
“The film ultimately lacks the psychological depth and visual style which marked the Corman/Poe cycle and also lacks the wit to be found in the productions of Hammer. The result is a curiously lifeless and empty shell of a movie only occasionally alleviated by some fine acting and impressive sets.” The Celluloid Highway
“Hessler does a good job and would go on to distinguish himself in several modestly successful genre films, but one can’t help but imagine what this movie could have been with Reeve at the helm. Ultimately, the main weakness of this tale is the make-up job used to realise Sir Edward’s “curse”. It looks like a bad case of acne.” The Spooky Isles
“The first half-hour or so has a really enigmatic quality as Hessler’s camera prowls through the sombre mansion, using subjective camera to convey the alienated and animal-like existence of the strange Sir Edward […] After this cryptic opening, however, the script rapidly begins to disintegrate.” Time Out
” …a fairly effective chiller […] Price and Lee are billed prominently, but the film really belongs to Williamson, who cuts a rather menacing figure with his crimson mask. Indeed, the film’s biggest disappointment is the much-anticipated Phantom of the Opera-like unmasking scene, which reveals Williamson’s visage–not nearly as horrible as might have been imagined…” TV Guide
Plot (contains spoilers):
1865, England: Having been grotesquely disfigured in an African voodoo ceremony for a transgression against the native populace, Sir Edward Markham (Alister Williamson) is kept locked in his room by his guilt-ridden brother, Julian (Vincent Price).
Tiring of his captivity, Sir Edward plots to escape by faking his death. With the help of the crooked family lawyer, Trench (Peter Arne), they hire witchdoctor N’Galo (Harry Baird) to concoct a drug to put Sir Edward into a deathlike trance. Before Trench has time to act, Julian finds his “dead” brother and puts him in a coffin (the title’s “oblong box”).
Embarrassed by his brother’s appearance, Julian asks Trench to find a proxy body for Sir Edward’s lying in state. Trench and N’Galo murder landlord Tom Hacket (Maxwell Shaw) and offer his corpse to Julian. After the wake, Trench and his young companion Norton (Carl Rigg), dispose of Hacket’s body in a nearby river, while Julian has Sir Edward buried. Now free of his brother, Julian marries his young fiancée, Elizabeth (Hilary Dwyer).
Sir Edward is buried alive until he is dug up by graverobbers and delivered to Dr Newhartt (Christopher Lee). Newhartt is confronted by the resurrected Sir Edward. With his knowledge of Newhartt’s illegal activities, Sir Edward blackmails the doctor into sheltering him. Concealing his face behind a crimson hood he embarks on a vengeful killing spree.
Norton is killed first. Sir Edward also finds time to romance Newhartt’s maid Sally (Sally Geeson), but when Newhartt finds out about their affair, he sacks her. Sir Edward is sidetracked by a couple of drunks who drag him into a nearby tavern. Here he ends up with a woman of ill repute Heidi (Uta Levka), who tries to steal his money, but Sir Edward kills her. The police begin investigating.
Meanwhile, Julian has become suspicious about the body that Trench supplied to him after his friend Kemp (Rupert Davies) finds it washed up on a riverbank. Julian confronts Trench, who tells him the truth about Sir Edward’s “death”. Soon after, Trench is dispatched by Sir Edward, but not before he tells him the whereabouts of N’Galo.
Via N’Galo, Sir Edward learns the truth about his time in Africa: in a case of mistaken identity he was punished for his brother’s crime of killing an African child. N’Galo fails to cure Sir Edward, and they fight; N’Galo stabs Sir Edward in the chest and Sir Edward retaliates by throwing hot liquid in his face. Sir Edward then returns to Newhartt’s home. Mistrusting Newhartt’s medical treatment, Sir Edward slits his throat and sets off to confront his brother.
Meanwhile, Sir Edward arrives back home to find Sally, who is repulsed by her former lover’s killing. Sir Edward drags her out onto the grounds of the house, pleading for her love. Julian arrives back home and gives chase with a double-barrelled shotgun. Out in the woods, Sally snatches Sir Edward’s hood from him and his deformed face is revealed for the first time. Julian catches up and Sir Edward confronts him about his crime. As Sir Edward lurches forward, Julian shoots him with both barrels. Leaning over the dying Sir Edward, Julian is bitten by him on the hand.
Once again in his “oblong box”, Sir Edward is resurrected by a vengeful N’Galo, but this time he is six feet under with no hope of escape. Meanwhile, back at the Markham mansion, Elizabeth finds Julian in Edward’s old room. When she asks him what he’s doing in there, he tells her it is his room and turns to reveal that his face is becoming disfigured – Edward’s bite has passed on the horrible disease to Julian.
Trench [Peter Arne]: “I’m more than pleased to be back. Africa is a heathen place and no mistake.”
Julian [Vincent Price]: “I couldn’t bear to think of my brother screaming away in Bedlam with the rest of those unfortunate creatures.”
Main cast and characters:
Vincent Price … Sir Julian
Christopher Lee … Doctor J. Neuhartt
Rupert Davies … Kemp
Uta Levka … Heidi
Sally Geeson … Sally
Alister Williamson … Edward
Peter Arne … Trench
Hilary Dwyer … Elizabeth
Maxwell Shaw … Hackett
Carl Rigg … Norton
Harry Baird … N’Galo
Godfrey James … Weller
James Mellor … Holt
John Barrie … Franklin
Ivor Dean … Hawthorne
Danny Daniels … Witchdoctor
Michael Balfour … Ruddock
Hira Talfrey … Martha
John Wentworth … Parson
Betty Woolfe … Mrs Hopkins
Shepperton Studios, Shepperton, Surrey, England
1 hour 36 minutes
Aspect ratio: 1.85: 1