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Oblong Box (reissue), The
Directed by Gordon Hessler, who re-wrote portions of the script with Christopher Wicking when he took over after Michael Reeves (originally intended to direct) passed away, 1969's The Oblong Box was yet another adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's work made for American International Pictures starring Vincent Price.
The film begins in Africa where Sir Edward Markham (Alistair Williamson), a plantation owner, is abducted and mutilated by a tribe of natives in a voodoo ceremony. When he returns to his native England, his brother Julian (Vincent Price) decides it would be best to keep him out of view, and so he has him shackled in the basement of the massive family home. This allows Julian to spend more time with his pretty fiancé, Elizabeth (Hilary Dwyer), and less time worrying about his disfigured brother who is quite quickly losing his mind down below.
Edward is no fool, however. He manages to talk a lawyer named Trench (Peter Arne) and his associate Norton (Carl Rigg) to visit a witch named doctor N'Galo (Harry Baird) to acquire a pill that will basically put him in a state of suspended animation simulating death. When this happens, he figures he'll be taken out in a coffin and buried, at which point he'll make his escape. Of course, this doesn't go as planned and Edward is buried alive but fortunate enough to be dug up quickly enough by a grave robber employed by Doctor Neuhartt (Christopher Lee), a man in need of human corpses for his medical experiments. When Edward finds out what Neuhartt is really up to he uses this information to ensure that he keeps his mouth shut. Then, with everyone else believing him dead, he covers his face with a red cloth mask and sets out, with his identity a secret, to get his revenge!
Although the film takes considerable liberties when compared to Poe's short story of the same name, judged on its own merits The Oblong Box is a fun horror picture noteworthy for being the first on-screen pairing of Vincent Price and Christopher Lee. Hessler's direction here is interesting, as it keeps the pacing tight but takes the film into some unexpected political directions in how it uses elements of black culture to contrast with the white imperialism of the era in which it is set - not something you often saw in horror films of the late sixties. Shot on location in England, the film benefits from some great sets and locations that aid immensely in giving it the right sort of gothic atmosphere you'd hope for in a Poe film. The costumes are quite good too, nice and colorful without looking too garish.
As far as the performances are concerned, Price is his typically reliable and charming self throughout the movie. He isn't breaking any new ground here but the movie doesn't necessarily ask him to and if this isn't necessarily going to rank at the top of his filmography, his work here is solid indeed. Lee is also very good here, looking a little off with his moptop hair style, but he's fairly underused. Still, his performance is good and he makes the most of his limited screen time. The real star of the show, however, is Alistair Williamson, who would later once again act alongside Price in The Abominable Doctor Phibes. Although Williamson is dubbed here and spends most of the film wearing a red mask over his face, the physical side of his work in front of the camera is pretty impressive. He's got a very strong energy to his performance that, combined with the eerie voice given his character, makes for an interesting and effectively creepy lead character.
Though this one is often times regarded as a lesser Price/Poe film and it will likely forever live in the shadow of Witchfinder General given the Reeves connection, the English setting and the fact that it shares a few cast members with that film The Oblong Box does manage to hit almost all of the right notes. It's tense, occasionally quite bloody, and ripe with atmosphere and the story offers up plenty of intrigue and suspense. Add to that the solid acting and a memorable score and it makes for fine horror entertainment.
The Oblong Box was released on Blu-ray by Kino a few years ago and this appears to mirror that older disc. The film is presented on Blu-ray in 1.85.1 widescreen in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer and generally speaking it looks very nice. There are a few small scuffs and scratches evident here and there but overall the picture is quite clean. The increase in detail is frequently very impressive when compared to the previous DVD release from MGM while texture and depth are strong throughout as well. Black levels are solid while shadow detail is quite good as well. There is no evidence of any noise reduction or edge enhancement nor are there any compression artifacts.
The only audio option for the feature is a DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track, in the film's native English. No alternate language options or subtitles are provided. Again, we get a nice upgrade when compared to the DVD. The score has more depth and clarity to it while balance is spot on. That means that there aren't any problems understanding the dialogue when the music or effects kick in. Hiss and distortion are non-issues. A very fine mix overall, one that would seem to be an accurate representation of the original elements.
The main extra on the disc is an audio commentary from film historian Steve Haberman that does a very fine job of explaining not only the basics behind the film, but in explaining its history as well. He discusses the background of the picture, how Hessler came on board to direct, some of the details of the performances (Lee and Price in particular) as well as the locations, sets and the score as well. He does a good job of covering pretty much everything you'd want covered in a track like this, and it's delivered at a good pace. Definitely worth a listen.
The disc also includes the short Edgar Allan Poe's Annabel Lee from 1969 that was narrated by Vincent Price, which runs just under ten minutes. It uses stills, artwork and live action in a sort of collage style to recreate Poe's story in visual format. It's short (though the poem it's based on isn't that long in the first place), but it works and Price's narration is pretty much perfect here. As Price's narration tells the story of lost love and doomed romance, the visuals eerily reflect his spoken word performance. This is welcome addition to the disc.
Aside from that we get a trailer for the feature and bonus trailers for a few other Price titles now available on Blu-ray from Kino as well as static menus and chapter selection. A new slipcover is also provided with this reissue.
The Oblong Box holds up well as it sees both Price and Lee in fine form and it features a great score, moody atmosphere and strong direction from Hessler. The Blu-ray release from Kino's Studio Classics line trumps the past DVD release in every way you'd want it to. Fans of the movie should be quite happy to double dip on this one, it's a very strong upgrade of a very strong film. If you've already got the first issue, you'll have to figure out how much the new slipcover means to you, but if not, consider this one recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.