THE OBLONG BOX (1969) Blu-ray
Director: Gordon Hessler
Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Whether you like their work or not, director Gordon Hessler and screenwriter Christopher Wicking brought a fresh tone to American International Pictures (AIP's) gothic horrors. Changing with the times, the gore was much more generous than in the previous Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe series, which Hessler's works were often compared to. The pictures were downright serious and they always ended in doom, even the more heroic characters rarely escaped with their lives. The first Hessler/Wicking collaboration, THE OBLONG BOX, now receives a warm welcome on Blu-ray, courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics.

In Africa, English plantation owner Sir Edward Markham (Alistair Williamson, SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING) is captured, tied up and mutilated in a voodoo ceremony. After a return to England, Edward’s brother Julian (Vincent Price, HOUSE OF WAX), who is engaged to young Elizabeth (Hilary Dwyer, CRY OF THE BANSHEE), keeps him locked away in an upstairs room in his secluded manor, as he’s now mad and diseased. Edward, who is rarely allowed visitors, is desperate to escape, so an elaborate scheme is concocted behind Julian’s back. Unscrupulous family lawyer Trench (Peter Arne, THE BLACK TORMENT) and the more righteous but money-hungry Mark Norton (Carl Rigg, LIFEFORCE) are hired, and in turn pay visiting African witch doctor N’Galo (Harry Baird, FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE) to provide Edward with a pill that will allow him to simulate death and be set free once his coffin is removed from the house. Edward is then double-crossed and buried alive, but coincidentally dug up by a grave robber (Godfrey James, AT THE EARTH’S CORE) who provides cadavers for practicing physician and experimenting anatomist Dr. Neuhartt (Christopher Lee, THE WICKER MAN). Neuhartt is shocked to discover the living and breathing Edward when he removes the lid of the coffin, with Edward in turn blackmailing the good doctor into giving him sanctuary and promising to keep his identity a secret. Now donning a cloth crimson mask to hide his hideous face, Edward prowls the area at night, out for revenge on those who betrayed him.

One of AIP's British Productions, THE OBLONG BOX was originally to be directed by Michael Reeves who was very uninterested in the project (after doing re-writes on the original script) and overdosed the weekend before shooting commenced and didn't continue work on it (he would die later in February, 1969). Because of this situation, critics and fans accused Hessler (who was originally just the producer of the film) as unable to follow in Reeves' footsteps, as if he was meant to do so (Reeves' final film was the 1968’s masterful WITCHFINDER GENERAL – aka CONQUEROR WORM. – one of the greatest horror films of all time). This negative sentiment stuck with OBLONG, tagging it a disappointment by those who saw it as a follow-up to CONQUEROR. Regardless, OBLONG is something of an underrated gem, an interesting, well-made gothic foray that will be better appreciated now that it’s on Blu-ray. Based on a short Poe story (or actually titled after a Poe story which it has little to do with), Wicking re-wrote the original screenplay by Lawrence Huntington, and the results appear to be based on Poe’s “The Premature Burial” as well as Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Mark of the Beast”. Wicking does an admirable job of capturing the essence of Poe and his frequent themes of being buried alive, tossing in a number of intriguing plot twists and turns for the ensemble cast to work with. The film confirmed that Hessler could handle period horror. He respectively carried on the Poe series that Corman started a decade earlier, effectively updating the graphic intensity (especially with the numerous throat cuttings on display here) while maintaining a mood that was actually closer to Hammer than AIP. The impressive sets at Shepperton Studios, along with the beautiful English countryside, enhance the grand look of the film, and the cinematography by John Coquillon (STRAW DOGS) is also remarkable. The Hammer-esque score was composed by Harry Robinson (his first for a horror movie), who would go on to do the music for Hammer’s “Karnstein” trilogy.

The cast also includes Rupert Davies (DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE) as a painter friend of Julian, Sally Geeson (CRY OF THE BANSHEE) as a flirty housekeeper who becomes involved with Edward, Uta Levka (DE SADE) as a malicious prostitute and Ivor Dean (DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE) as the police inspector investigating the murders. Price had been associated with AIP’s Poe series for nearly a decade by this time, and although he was becoming disenchanted with his roles for the company at this point in his career, it certainly doesn’t show up on the screen, as he gives a dark and brooding performance as yet another tormented character living with “sin and retribution”. Lee is billed as a “guest star”, and the late actor once stated that he took the modest role so that he could star opposite Price, though the two only share one brief scene together. Sporting a platinum wig, Lee is quite good in what could have been a throwaway role, that of a village doctor who is up to no good, corrupt but not quite evil. Lee shares most of his scenes with Williamson, who is really the star of the picture. More should be said about his performance, as even though he’s under a hood for most of the show, his voice is distinct and he’s terrifyingly mad and unpredictable as Edward, even though the climactic reveal of his face (“a man turned inside out through sorcery”) is not nearly as shocking as it should be. Williamson is good enough that he should have been offered more prominent roles in British horror movies, though he did make bit appearances in THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE GORGON, THE DEADLY BEES and THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES.

Previously released on DVD though MGM’s “Midnite Movies” line in 2002, Kino Lorber is now offering the film on Blu-ray (as well as standard DVD) from a new HD transfer. The 1080p transfer presents the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, with color schemes looking bright and nicely saturated. Contrasts are excellent, and detail brings out impressive textures in the fleshtones, never before realized on previous standard def presentations. Filmic grain looks proper and organic, and only becomes heavier in several brief shots. Black levels are deep, and any dirt and debris on the source element are minimal, as the presentation is handsomely clean throughout. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English track has crystal clear clarity, with the music and sound effects also have good fidelity. Like the previous MGM DVD release, this version of the film is the longer “director’s cut”, with brief nudity, gore and dialog not seen in the theatrical release and previous home video releases (the packaging now carries an “R” rating; it was originally give an “M” for “mature” rating upon its initial release).

Film historian and screenwriter Steve Haberman is on hand for an extremely informative audio commentary, stating how critics compare the Hessler/Wicking AIP collaborations with Corman’s and Reeves’ work, and he thankfully champions the duo’s quartet of genre works as consistent and personal expressions. He talks about Wicking and the ideas he brought to the screenplay (being part of the liberal youth movement of the 1960s) and assesses the differences in Huntington’s original script drafts (first written as “Man in the Crimson Hood”) and what both Wicking and Reeves added to it, in great detail. Haberman, who acknowledges THE OBLONG BOX’s fresh approach to AIP’s Poe series, also discusses the pre-production of the film, shares information on most of the cast members and behind-the-camera talent, and also discusses what AIP cut to avoid an R rating (with it all being present here). Other topics touched upon include Reeves’ visit to the set right before his death, that the film was banned in Texas upon its release, and Haberman also discusses the other three Hessler/Wicking collaborations (CRY OF THE BANSHEE, SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN and MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE). “Edgar Allan Poe’s Annabel Lee” (9:46) is a short 1969 film narrated by Price (it was at one time shown theatrically before THE DEVIL’S WEDDING NIGHT). Shot in both black & white and color, the film does a nice job of painting a macabre tale through still photographs, macabre visuals and live action (the “buried alive” themes are also found here) and of course there’s Price’s unmistakable voice guiding the proceedings. Also included are trailers for THE OBLONG BOX, HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS, TALES OF TERROR, MADHOUSE and TWICE TOLD TALES. (George R. Reis)