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Said to have been begun by the ill-fated Michael Reeves (Witchfinder General), The Oblong Box is a very handsomely mounted Gothic that has a fairly unusual story to keep it from resembling a Hammer imitation. It also can boast good direction, convincing settings, and excellent acting. But its thin morality play doesn't quite mobilize its throat cuttings and premature burials to achieve any great Gothic heights.
The Oblong Box is not at all bad - it has interesting performances from Price and Lee, although they have no real scenes together. While there's a mystery afoot, the motivations of the unusually sane 'mad' hooded killer are fairly complex.
The story is basically a mix of the premature burial story with an undeveloped voodoo tale. Ever since the '50s, horror tales were exploiting the African revolts that relieved England of her 'white man's burden'. Hammer in particular used colonial guilt as a peg on which to hang stories of vengeance by vengeful cults and deities from the Third World. The Mummy is an obvious example, but the theme found political expression in The Stranglers of Bombay before becoming a staple in shockers like The Reptile and Plague of the Zombies. The essential idea of the evil done by white men, coming back to haunt them in merry England, presented fables about racial tensions in a remote Gothic setting where political correctness could be maintained.
The actual mechanics of the body-snatching in The Oblong Box is good - neither the graverobbers nor the cops are silly-oaf comic relief (nicely negating a Hammer given), and the unfolding of the mystery is reasonably accomplished amid all the skullduggery and mayhem.
There are at least two weak ingredients, however. The African angle is unclear in that we can't tell if the killing of a young boy that starts the terror, is accidental or not. The idea that the wrong brother paid the price for the crime is well laid-out, but since we never know how Julian runs his African plantation, or whether he deserves to suffer so, the connections never come home. If both brothers were rotten colonial exploiters, how more innocent could Edward have been than Julian, anyway? Furthermore, besides nailing him through his hands and mutilating his face, it's never stated what magic has been worked on poor Edward. When we finally see him, he honestly doesn't look that bad. And we never really see Edward behaving in a deranged manner. He seems to have kept his cool even while buried alive, which is more than you can say for Ray Milland. At the conclusion, the exotic African sickness we thought was a smokescreen excuse for Edward's imprisonment, appears to have been real all along.
The story has a nice circle of corruption. The duplicitous Julian thinks he's paid off the crooked lawyer Trench to snatch a body, but Trench kills somebody instead. His helpers are paid. The no-nonsense real bodysnatcher might as well have a union card, he's so professional. It's interesting that he alone of the cast has the sense to know when enough is enough. Dr. Neuhart pays the graverobber, and is given a 'research grant' by his murdering houseguest. And it's hard to take too seriously the African Justice angle, when the local witchdoctor-practitioner, N'Galo, is constantly trading knockout pills and deadly blowdart killings for cold cash.
The exploitation content varies. There's little or no gore in the very fake throat-slashings, but the bits of nudity aren't as dumb as the displays in typical Hammer output. A fairly irrelevant setpiece takes place in a brothel, that doesn't make a lot of sense. Edward seems to be too resolute a revenger to be sidetracked by the prostitute Heidi (Uta Levka, also from Scream and Scream Again); if we're expected to believe he's gained a heart and is searching for the maid Sally (Sally Geeson), the script should have given him the opportunity to establish more of a relationship with her.
The story dishes out some just desserts but doesn't give us the satisfaction of seeing anybody learn much from the events. Vincent Price just gets to keep on brooding, wondering what his newly-transmitted disease will do to him. Almost everyone else is carved up. Witchfinder General's Hilary Dwyer does a nice job of brightening the show, and Price's servant is nicely played by Michael Balfour (memorable as MacBeth's key henchman a couple of years later). None of the supporting players can be faulted, and those rewarded with reasonably-developed parts, like Peter Arne as Trench, do excellent work.
If The Oblong Box had found a spark of its own, or had explored its characters a bit more, as with The Tomb of Ligeia or Witchfinder General, it might have become a minor classic.
MGM's copy of The Oblong Box is very handsome indeed, and in widescreen looks much better than it did flat on AMC. The celebrated John Coquillon shot both of these Gordon Hessler films, and with its attractive interiors, this is by far the better-looking of the two. For those who only remember the theatrical release, it deleted one conversation between Price and Hilary Dwyer, rearranged some scenes, and of course censored the nudity. This original cut is the same as what's always been on home video, so what's here won't be a revelation for most fans (as Murders in the Rue Morgue might be: its cable version is a rarely-seen original cut).
The so-so trailer lacks a narration track, which accounts for its periodic quiet sections. Trailer materials aren't vaulted or protected with as much care as they should be, which is why we see so many of them textless or sans voiceover: the only surviving elements are often ones set aside for international export use.
Scream and Scream Again is always interesting, even if it's not very good. What reads like a unique blend of crossed genres, plays more like a massive story chopped down to fit a television budget.
As is obvious from the synopsis, Scream and Scream Again is a complicated web of spies, police procedural, and Frankenstein-like medical experiments. Part of its notoriety comes from rave coverage in Phil Hardy's film encyclopedias (it rates writeups in both the Horror and the Science Fiction volumes) and the enthusiastic approval of Fritz Lang, who about this time was quoted as admiring this film, 2001, a Space Odyssey, and Jesus Franco's Succubus. 1 Scream and Scream Again has a lot in common with Lang's groundbreaking Mabuse and spy films, at least on its surface. But it's also humorless and unexciting.
Horror fan expectations are immediately foiled when the show limits its three major stars to a few short minutes of screen time, as relatively minor players. They have almost no scenes together. Peter Cushing's role should have been billed as a cameo, and Christopher Lee's is so devoid of context, even his formidable presence makes little impression. We see Lee only three or four times, and in each brief appearance he could almost be a different character. Vincent Price has somewhat more to do, but he's an obvious mad doctor from the start, which drains all the suspense (and frankly, any freshness) from the medical horror subplot.
The major characters are played by relative unknowns. Chief among the villains is Marshall Jones' Ruritanian spy Konratz, who has a lot of screen time but no personality; when he's offscreen, we tend to forget what he looks like. Dedicated police detective Bellaver has the most developed character, and with nobody else to hang on to, we resent his elimination before the finale. As it turns out, like too much in Scream and Scream Again, he's practically irrelevant to the story.
Often, a reviewer will pronounce a complicated movie as incoherent simply because he didn't care enough to pay attention to the details. That's not the case with Scream and Scream Again; what may have started as a great concept remains a confused mess, even after a second close viewing. A script-writing class might find this film a better subject for study than a truly good movie.
What we've got here is a poorly structured script, in which characters never develop and connections don't connect. It's like reverse ellipsis - the key material is missing and what's left is the flat and predictable stuff that should have been skipped. Time is wasted with the capture and torture of refugee Stensgaard, a digression that has no place in the plot and tells us nothing we don't already know about Konratz. In fact, all we see of Konratz' mysterious foreign country is a frontier gate in a divided city, a green field, and several confined offices. Is this just a disguised East Berlin, or some new Fascist state?
The long pursuit of killer Gothard eventually leads us to Price, but the police aren't very suspicious of the haughty doctor, even before they're warned off the case. When we discover that the nurse who drugs the amputee, is the prowler who steals back Gothard's severed hand for Price, there's no thrill, as we've already guessed the connections. Of course we're interested in discovering why the jogger is losing a limb per day, but we've figured out what's happening for ourselves long before the answer is officially revealed in Dr. Browning's freezer. Finally, the bulk of the film is a standard police drama like one we'd see on television, with padded car chases and discotheque action. The pace between scenes is fast enough, but too many of the scenes are flat and predictable stuff - filler instead of key content.
There's some interest when pathologist Sorel and lady cop Sylvia go sleuthing on their own, but it comes to nothing when she's set up as a standard damsel in distress, and he serves as a pair of ears to whom an unmotivated Dr. Browning can explain his research. When Konratz and then Fremont arrive to wrap up the show, it's like they've come from a different movie. The finish is just more predictable mad-doctor fighting in the mad lab.
The show ends up as a mediocre police investigation movie, intercut with an unconvincing and under-developed spy story. They dovetail into a cartoonish mad-doctor plot that wandered in from The Frozen Dead. The styles don't mesh.
When Lee drives away at the end, we still know too little of this incoherent story. Are Sorel and Sylvia to be elminated for knowing too much? Is this medical conspiracy separate from the government or part of it? Is Konratz the 'foreign' agent for the conspiracy, or just a superman gone wild in a different way than serial killer Keith? What does the conspiracy want, anyway? A master race? Political control by substituting synthetic people for politicians? How did Keith get loose, or did Browning just set him free? Why is Keith a killer? Why is he a vampire? Is Konratz a vampire as well? How can Fremont back Browning into the acid bath just by staring at him? Is Fremont a superman too? Not only is the unfolding of this story not very exciting, it's frustratingly unenlightening - we know less when we finish than when we started. We don't feel the same exhilaration, as after a complicated thriller like The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.
MGM's DVD of Scream and Scream Again looks simply great. The image is far brighter than the old VHS transfers, and the 16:9 framing gives the compositions some needed focus. Happily, the music track has been returned to the original cues - this was yet another of Orion's substitution soundtrack victims. The trailer is not bad, but it laughably mis-identifies Marshall Jones as Peter Cushing (!!!) in one ID shot. It also has an alternate take of Michael Gothard's superhuman climbing of the quarry wall not used in the feature proper, probably because it was too funny-looking.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Oblong Box rates:
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Scream and Scream Again rates:
1. We had a visit from Lang in 1972 at UCLA, where he looked tired but
mentally sharp. He said that from 1966 on his vision was so poor that he only got the 'gist' of
what was happening on-screen in 2001, but it was enough to impress him. As he was probably
legally blind in 1972, I wonder to what degree he was able to really see the films he praised.