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Oblong Box / Scream and Scream Again

MGM // PG // August 27, 2002
List Price: $14.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by D.K. Holm | posted August 20, 2002 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:
Two Gordon Hessler films, both from 1969, both credited to screenwriter Christopher Wicking, both left unfinished by the death of the original director Michael Reeves, and both starring Vincent Price and Christopher Lee. What a double feature!

Until, of course, you actually start to watch the films.

Both The Oblong Box and Scream and Scream Again have pockets of fans out there in filmdom. For this viewer, however, each was a waste of time. Neither looks particularly good, even though cinematographer John Coquillon is praised for his work, and neither have particularly engrossing stories.

At least the tale in The Oblong Box makes an attempt at a larger political statement. Though it is nominally one of American International's Poe movies, it is not by Corman, and it is not really based on the source story, which is a sea-faring tale first published in a December 1845 issue of Broadway Journal.

Here it is the story of Sir Edward Markham (Alister Williamson, mostly unseen under a red hood). Markham was disfigured by vengeance-seeking natives during a stay in Africa. Now back in England, he lives in attic of his estate under the protection of his brother Julian (Price). Edward makes his escape, however, in order to restore his face to normal via voodoo but he has fallen into the clutches of the greedy Trench (Peter Arne). Edward is buried alive (the movie is really an adaptation or variation on The Premature Burial), but "rescued" by two body snatchers who take him to Doctor Neuhart (Lee), who has been conducting medical investigations on corpses in the highly active and cramped village. Edward goes on a killing spree, to avenge his betrayal, and in the course of things, learns the secret of why he was sought out by the natives for justice in the first place.

With its disgust at medical experimentation and its skepticism about colonialism, The Oblong Box is unusually ambitious for a horror film, even if the finished product lurches along boringly. The film was initially a project for Michael Reeves, the cult director of Conqueror Worm/Witchfinder General who died young of a reputed drug overdose. Even though Price had had trouble with Reeves on the set of Witchfinder, he was willing to work with him again because even Price realized that Reeves had derived a remarkable, affectation-free performance out of him. One can only imagine what Reeves would have made out of this film. Hessler was a journeyman horror director who spent most of his later years in series television. For the record, Lee and Price have but one scene together at the end that lasts about 15 seconds.

Scream and Scream Again has the unusual distinction of being one of Fritz Lang's favorite films. It is assumed that he thought highly of it because the murky tale of serial killing and government conspiracies reminded him of his own films, including the Mabuse series. His esteem also suggests that he could follow the plot, which makes him a singular person.

The film begins with a guy jogging through the park. Just when you think that this might be some kind of weird gay porn out of Monty Python or Kids in the Hall, he keels over from a non-fatal heart seizure, and the credits end. Later we are shown that this guy has had his leg amputated (a bitter irony for a jogger).

But just when you think that the movie has started, it backs up and starts over again with another tale, this one about a scientist arriving in a presumably communist country (it is at least fascistic, with a strange red emblem resembling a swastika as its national logo). Challenged by the bureaucrat he is meeting, the scientist Konratz (Marshall Jones) kills the man with a deft application of Yubawazi.

But the film still isn't done starting. Next we see a bunch of cops investigating the murder of a young woman named Ilene Stevens. The cops proceed to visit her boss, Dr. Browning (Price), who offers little insight into the case.

Then the jogger wakes up with his other leg amputated.

Then we are back behind the Iron Curtain, where a cute blonde and her boyfriend in lederhosen are attempting to escape by mountain route only to be gunned down and/or tortured. Their trek does not evoke memories of Grand Illusion.

Then we are back in England, to hear the band The Amen Corner singing the theme song in a nightclub. In the crowd is a villain who looks like a cross between Malcolm McDowell and the bad guy in Stallone's Cobra (Brian Thompson?). This guy picks up a chick in the club and after a long drive in a sports car to the sound of some tinny British "jazz," he kills her.

Then back to the Iron Curtain, where Peter Cushing makes his brief appearance as tyrannizing ruler Benedek to chastise the guy who tortured the two escapees.

Then we meet Fremont (Lee), some kind of minister in charge of British military affairs who is upset by the hijacking of a missile, or something like that.

While he is brooding and taking flak from the PM, the cops put a mike and tracer in the shoe of a lady officer and send her into the club where the bizarre killer has found both of his previous victims. A clockwork and overlong (it takes about two whole chapters!) high-speed chase ensues. It turns out that the killer is a Martin-style vampire (that's why the victims had no blood!). He is killed, but not without difficulty, and he loses a hand to a pair of handcuffs. The mysterious nurse who tends to the legless man creeps in to steal the hand, stored in a surprisingly porous morgue.

Finally, we learn that there is a connection between Fremont, and the vampire and Doctor Browning. It takes one good cop (actually a Quincy-like medical examiner) who can't play by the rules to pull a Dirty Harry and break the case in defiance of No. 10 Downing. He learns that Browning has been running secret experiments like something out of Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! in which body parts are assembled to make one perfect man (or robot, like the vampire killer). The philosophical and poetic Browning ("God is dying all over the world. Man invented him but doesn't need him anymore. Man is God now. As a matter of fact, he always was…this civilization is driving us into the sea of extinction") then proceeds to summarize the X-Files style conspiracy plot that has been burbling beneath the surface of the movie the whole time (the story was based on the novel The Disoriented Man by "Peter Saxon" (W. Howard Baker and Stephen Frances).

For the record, in Scream Price and Lee have only one brief scene together at the end Lee, and Cushing has no scenes with them.


VIDEO: MGM's transfer of these two films looks good, with nary an imperfection. The wide screen images (1.85:1), enhanced for wide screen televisions, are sharp and clean. John Coquillon's cinematography relies on lots of zooms, as punctuation, and he uses handheld too much, but occasionally there are some good compositions.

SOUND: The Dolby Digital mono tracks are effective for talky horror films. Both movies also come with English, French, and Spanish subtitles. There is some controversy about the movie's sound score. The Amen Corner's songs were apparently removed at some point for VHS release. This seems to be the original movie. One telltale clues is that there is no jump in the credit sequence over the music credit.

MENUS AND PACKAGING: Since this is a flipper, there is no label; the packaging consists of a keep case with the two films' posters on the cover. Each of the movies is offered in 16 chapter chunks, Burial being 81 minutes long, Scream at 95 minutes, both on static, silent, but colorful menus.

EXTRAS: Extras are minimal, consisting of two trailers. Both trailers appear a little blurry. The trailer for The Oblong Box is moderately effective, while the trailer for Scream gives away what little of the plot there is that is easy to follow, and ruins one of the better shock moments in the film. Also, it misidentifies Marshall Jones as Peter Cushing.

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