Sir Edward Markham is the victim of a voodoo curse which has caused his face to become horribly disfigured. He is kept captive in the attic of his house by his brother Julian (Vincent Price). Sir Edward escapes, moves in with an unscrupulous doctor who hires grave robbers to steal bodies for his research, wears a red hood over his face, and kills a good number of townspeople before the surprise ending...
When faced with adapting a great work of literature, a writer or a filmmaker must make the difficult adaptation choice of taking the story literally word for word, image for image, or take the original piece of work and use it as inspiration and take the material in an entirely different direction. Both approaches have their drawbacks and disadvantages while also providing some solid cinematic storytelling benefits as well. In the case of 1969's The Oblong Box directed be Gordon Hessler, Edgar Allan Poe's classic tale of an ocean voyage and murder provided a loose adaptation for a frightening and unnerving tale of bloody revenge.
In 1865, England as well as other European nations were heavily invested in the colonization and exploitation of the continent of Africa. As a land of rich opportunities, it wasn't hard for men like Julian Markham (Vincent Price) and his Brother Sir Edward (Alister Williamson) to lay claim to a land and plunder its riches. However, after a tragic accident offends the local indigenous people, poor Sir Edward is kidnapped, taken into a ceremonial hut where he is nailed to a cross and is subject to a horrific tribal ritual that drives him to the brink of madness while disfiguring his face.
Powerless to stop the ritual, Julian is left to watch as unspeakable horrors are inflicted upon his brother. With no other choice, Julian takes his brother back to the family's estate in England where Edward is chained and locked inside his bedroom. Fearing that the madness will never break, Julian has dismissed all of his servants and has pushed away his fiancé in an effort to keep anyone from being able to see his brother. The family lawyer Trench (Peter Arne) is the only outsider to know the terrible fate to befall the once great Sir Edward. Trench also happens to be the only one to know that Sir Edward is far less mad than he seems and that the fits of madness come from the confusion over what has befallen him.
Desperate for a cure, Sir Edward has enlisted the aid of Trench to locate the mysterious African witch doctor known as N'Galo (Harry Baird) for a cure. But before a cure can be provided, Julian and his servant mistake Sir Edward's unconscious state as being dead and is promptly nailed inside a coffin and buried alive. While Julian attempts to put his life back together again, a crew of grave robbers employed by the esteemed Doctor Newhartt (Christopher Lee). When Doctor Newhartt opens the oblong box to dissect the carcass for science, he discovers a corpse who isn't quite dead yet(only mostly dead). Donning a red hood, Sir Edward forces the reluctant Doctor Newhartt to help him find the men responsible for his burial so that he may uncover the truth behind his horrific disfiguration.
'The Oblong Box' is the best kind of "Inspired By" type of film adaptations. Beyond a title and a few fleeting moments of plot, the film bares little to no resemblance to the Edgar Alan Poe classic story, and is a better movie for it. For one, "The Oblong Box" while being a fine bit of short story writing and a Poe Classic, doesn't exactly translate well to film. I love how this film changed setting and scenery and added a lot more dimension to the tale beyond being a claustrophobic ocean story. True, that aspect of the original story could have made for a great film, but somehow I think by adding in a more defined revenge element and some extra characters really helped fill this story out into something that is far more cinematic. As other Edgar Allan Poe adaptations have demonstrated, there is plenty of room for interpretation, and while this film may not be literal, I do feel that it captures the story's heart and essence and used those defining elements to create a chilling and effective thriller.
When you start to dig back into some of these back catalogue horror movies and see the number of movies that Vincent Price made and then how many of them were adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories, it starts to be a bit comical. But then if you were to take a step back and really think about it, who else would you cast in an adaptation of victorian era horror? While some of the adaptations like Roger Corman's 'The Raven' certainly took a more humorous bent to the material, the esteemed Mr. Price gave that adaptation a sense of regal legitimacy. That same sense of regal legitimacy is on full display here as the late great Vincent Price tackles the role of Julian Markham. One thing I've always loved about Vincent Price was his inherent ability at being able to play the role of victim and villain interchangeably and with wonderful subtleness. Sure the man knew how to camp things up when called for, but his best moments in any movie, especially in 'The Oblong Box,' are when he isn't saying anything or being verbose, he just looks at whomever he's speaking too and gives that sideways glance of his that says a lot more than any string of words ever could. While it could be argued that Vincent Price's Julian isn't exactly the main character, he certainly is an anchor figure and holds much of this film together.
To that effect, you have the dubbed over Alister Williamson as the mad and disfigured Sir Edward. While it may not be his voice we hear coming from under that frightening red hood, the man gives the role a menacing physicality that makes him look simultaneously aristocratic while also being a figure one should fear. And then we have the red hood itself as the film's McGuffin - just what does Sir Edward look like under that hood? While Edward's murderous tendencies provide enough material to keep the film frightening, it's that idea of how horrible he must look that keeps the viewer hooked. much like 'The Picture of Dorian Grey' - you want to see that face no matter how disgusting or horrible looking!
'The Oblong Box' may not be the best horror film or the greatest adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe for that matter, but it is one heck of a great little creepy thriller that sadly gets overlooked. One of the things I love about rediscovering old classics such as 'The Oblong Box' is the fun that comes from recovering faint memories and the thrills that hold you to the edge of your seat as well as the surprises that give you a nice jump every now and again. I'd last seen this movie years and years ago when my Dad had checked it out from the library on VHS. I couldn't remember much of the movie itself, but that crimson red hood was still rattling around in the attic of my brain and the film is just as creepy as I remember it being from when I was a kid. Another great classic arrives on Blu-ray and I couldn't be happier.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Oblong Box' arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Kino Lorber and their Studio Classics line pressed on a Region A locked BD25 disc. Housed in a standard case, the disc opens directly to a static main menu.
Given the last time I had seen this film was on a well-worn VHS tape, I wasn't expecting all that much from 'The Oblong Box' on Blu-ray, but I am pleased to report that this disc's 1.85:1 1080p transfer does the film a great deal of justice. Fine film grain is present throughout the film but never very overpowering or noisy looking so the film maintains strong detail levels throughout much of the film. There are a few softer moments here and there, but they're hardly worth mentioning really. Colors appear to be accurate to this film, and this is a statement that needs a little quantifying. The film opens to the African hut where Sir Edward's curse is being performed. Colors are stable, primaries have a lively pop and flesh tones look accurate and pleasant. The film then transitions to England where colors are a bit more muted at times and people can appear to be a bit on the pale side of things. However, just from looking at Vincent Price's bright blue costuming, it's easy to see that any color grading has been done carefully without blowing out any of the primaries. Blood has that wonderful bright red syrupy look that so many horror movies of the era had. Black levels are strong and richly inky throughout giving a decent sense of depth, especially during scenes shot in confined spaces. The only problem area to speak of is around the 20-minute mark where a couple of shots are in pretty rough shape. Thankfully they're very brief and last only a second or two. Beyond that small issue there really isn't anything to strongly fault a transfer of a back catalogue title for.
'The Oblong Box' enjoys a pleasing and resonant DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio track. From start to finish this film is free of any and all age-related issues or hiss or any kind of dropouts or lulls. Dialogue comes through crisp and clean and is never difficult to hear which is great when you have the likes of Vincent Price and Christopher Lee occupying the same film. The track offers plenty of space around the elements so there is a nice sense of dimension to the track that keeps it feeling authentic. Imaging is serviceable as much of the film takes place in closed spaces and doesn't require much in the way of channel movement, however, when someone is on horseback, or when Sir Edward ventures out into the underbelly of London's rougher sides of town, there is plenty of movement to hear and enjoy. The track is well balanced and keeps in the midranges, and I never once had to reach for the volume button. All around this is a fine track that serves the film well.
Audio Commentary: Film Historian Steve Haberman does a solid job of providing some insight into the story and characters while also filling in a lot of production information and trivial. A solid track and worth the listen.
Edgar Allan Poe's Annabel Lee (1969): (HD 9:47) Narrated by Vincent Price, this is an odd short film of sorts, almost seems like a student production. This certainly is a creepy little short film. It kinda goes from 0 to 60 at a drop of a dime.
The Oblong Box Trailer: (HD 1:56) This film certainly didn't need much in the way of an elaborate trailer to sell itself. It gives the basics without giving away the big reveal.
Twice Told Tales Trailer: (HD 2:43) A solid and bloody trailer that setups the film well enough. Thankfully this flick is due on Blu-ray this December!
Madhouse Trailer (HD 1:49) I love old school trailers that play up the lethality of the film's scares.
Tales of Terror Trailer: (HD 2:22) This is one of the more comical approaches to the works of Poe, but is still creepy enough.
House of the Long Shadows Trailer(HD 2:27) Vincent Price should have narrated more movie trailers, hell more movies in general. He does a great job of selling this film as being worth the time.
'The Oblong Box' is a great addition to any film fan's Blu-ray library. The film itself it startling and creepy, with plenty of suspense and a great hook to keep you watching. It also stars Vincent Price and that has never been a detriment to any film that I know of! Kino Lorber has produced a fine disc and I dare say it is perhaps one of my favorites to arrive on their Studio Classic's line. The picture quality and the audio presentation may not be mind-blowing, but they're a firm upgrades over any standard definition presentation out there - especially the old muddy VHS tape I saw decades ago. With a nice commentary track and a creepy short film with a slew of Vincent Price related movie trailers, I'm calling this highly recommended.