Oblong Box, The (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: Oct 04, 2022
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Oblong Box, The (Blu-ray Review)


Gordon Hessler

Release Date(s)

1969 (September 6, 2022)


American International Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
  • Film/Program Grade: C+
  • Video Grade: A-
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: B

The Oblong Box (Blu-ray)



Based on an 1844 short story by Edgar Allan Poe about a sea voyage and a mysterious pine box, The Oblong Box film adaptation altered the plot considerably and featured the first screen pairing of horror legends Vincent Price and Christopher Lee.

A frightening African tribal ritual (featuring the amazing Oh! Ogunde Dancers) that opens the film results in the permanent disfigurement of Sir Edward Markham (Alistair Williamson) for unknown reasons. His brother Julian (Price) manages to get Edward and himself back to their estate in England. There, Edward must remain confined to a locked room to protect others from his violent outbursts and to prevent anyone from seeing his horrifying face. Edward escapes confinement and enlists the help of the family lawyer, Samuel Trench (Peter Arne), to obtain a potion that will make him appear dead. Not all goes according to plan and Edward is buried alive, but local grave robber Dr. Neuhartt (Lee) digs up the grave and discovers that Edward is far from dead. Wearing a red hood to hide his disfigurement, Edward sets in motion a plan of vengeance against Julian and all those close to him.

Though the combination of Vincent Price and Edgar Allan Poe suggests the earlier successes of The Fall of the House of Usher, The Raven, and The Pit and the Pendulum, The Oblong Box never strikes the right tone and plods along with a minimum of suspense and dramatic tension. Price is rather restrained, considering his earlier Poe roles, likely because of an uninspired script by Lawrence Huntington with additional dialogue credited to Christopher Wicking. The opener is riveting but once the action shifts to England, the narrative slows. Edward is supposed to be frightening because his ordeal has not only disfigured him, but has also driven him to violent madness. Unfortunately, the masked character never achieves the heights of a true horror villain.

Christopher Lee has an underwritten role as Dr. Neuhartt, the grave robber who becomes an accomplice to Edward in the name of scientific experimentation. Neuhartt is the resident mad scientist, yet he appears too urbane and elegant to fit the stereotype. In a role that calls out for occasional histrionics, Lee is subdued throughout the film and adds little excitement with his presence.

Alistair Williamson has the misfortune of playing Edward without ever showing his face until the very end. His portrayal depends solely on bodily gestures and his voice, and they fail to convey Edward’s madness and drive for vengeance. The revelation of his face at the end is a real letdown, since he looks more like someone in need of a good dermatologist than a man tortured and scarred by vengeful African natives. The film builds toward this unveiling, but when it occurs, rather than shock it elicits a shrug. “Is that all there is?,” to quote a lyric in a Peggy Lee song.

Visually, John Coquillon’s cinematography does little to enhance atmosphere. He does takes advantage of the color red in many key scenes, keeping the rest of the palette fairly dark. With few tracking shots or moving camera moments, the film often resembles a stage play. There’s an abundance of dialogue providing exposition that would be better shown.

The script indicates that Julian is guilt-ridden because Edward was tortured when he himself should rightfully have been the target of the natives’ hatred. Yet we never know exactly what his crime was until the very end of the picture, which introduces a whole other thematic level. In any case, after an outburst in Africa in which Julian shouts in anguish that his brother has paid for his own misdeeds, Price fails to convey that guilt once he gets back home, where he comes off more as jailer than savior to his unfortunate brother. Price always had a knack for adding quirky gestures or phrasings that gave his characters distinction, but as Julian, he’s restrained and fails to deliver the eccentricities of performance that his fans love.

The Oblong Box was shot by director of photography John Coquillon on 35 mm film with spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Kino Lorber Studio Classics brings the film to Blu-ray for a second time using the same master as their 2015 release. Detail is sharp, with facial wrinkles, bottles, and vials in Dr. Neuhartt’s laboratory, autumn leaves on the ground, patterns on clothing, and the flames of a fire nicely delineated. The color palette is subdued, with dark colors dominating. The exception is the use of vivid reds that practically jump off the screen in natives’ attire, Edward’s hood, a blood-soaked knife, a red scarf waved by a dancing Gypsy, and blood from various victims. Night scenes unfortunately lose detail with images unclear. Interior scenes contain darkened areas and shadows to enhance mood. The opening African sequence features many point-of-view shots as Edward is tortured by the natives.

The soundtrack is English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional subtitles in English are provided. Price and the English cast deliver their lines clearly and distinctly. The opening sequence contains intentionally frightening sound design, with frenzied music and tribal drums, wild dancing and chanting by angry natives, and Edward’s screams creating a terrifying scene. Murders are accompanied by a few tepid screams. Other sound effects are a loud gunshot and horses’ hooves. The score by Harry Robertson is helpful in shoring up talky sections, giving creepy scenes an extra boost, and enhancing scenes of murder.

Bonus materials include the following:

  • Audio Commentary by Steve Haberman
  • Edgar Allan Poe’s Annabel Lee Narrated by Vincent Price (9:47)
  • Radio Spots (2 in all – 1:35)
  • Trailer (1:56)
  • Master of the World Trailer (2:31)
  • The Raven Trailer (2:29)
  • Twice Told Tales Trailer (2:43)
  • The Comedy of Terrors Trailer (2:33)
  • The Last Man on Earth Trailer (1:51)
  • The Tomb of Ligeia Trailer (2:31)
  • Scream and Scream Again Trailer (2:22)
  • The Abominable Dr. Phibes Trailer (2:35)
  • Dr. Phibes Rises Again Trailer (2:09)
  • Theater of Blood Trailer (2:31)
  • House of the Long Shadows Trailer (2:28)
  • The Crimson Cult (Curse of the Crimson Altar) Trailer (2:04)

Film historian Steve Haberman notes that the original intended director of The Oblong Box, Michael Reeves, overdosed on drugs and was replaced by Gordon Hessler. The film is the first of four collaborations between Hessler and writer Christopher Wicking for American International Pictures. Even though they were more widely distributed and grossed more than other low budget horror films of the time, they have been underrated and underappreciated. The film represents a transition between period Gothic to modern horror. Wicking added the theme of colonial exploitation to the plot, and would continue to portray authoritative figures as corrupt exploiters of the common man in future films. The British horror film typically reinforced conservative values but Wicking went against that tradition. The Oblong Box had a tight, three-week shooting schedule. Brief career overviews are provided for cast members. When Christopher Lee was engaged to play Dr. Neuhart, the role was expanded to provide him greater screen time. Julian is a classic tragic hero, both psychologically and politically. He refuses to take responsibility for the injustice to his brother, vainly attempting to preserve his position through pride and privilege.

Annabel Lee – This short film features a combination of live action and still photography. The live action consists of what looks like a 60s flower child walking on the beach. Music by Hal Borne accompanies the images and Vincent Price (off screen) recites the poem by Edgar Allan Poe.

The Oblong Box was not as successful as other American-made Poe adaptations. With Price and Lee—two giants of the horror genre—one would assume their teaming would be box office dynamite. But neither gets to infuse their unique touches into their characters. The script owes more to Poe’s The Premature Burial, which is a completely different story. More violent than earlier Poe adaptations, it’s one of the earliest horror films to dwell on graphic images to elicit chills.

- Dennis Seuling