Saturday, October 7, 2023

American Gothic Week: The next morning he was quite recovered, so far as regarded his mere bodily health. Of his mind I say nothing, of course.


Directed by Gordon Hessler
Written by Lawrence Huntington and Christopher Wicking (based on the title by Edgar Allan Poe)

Spoilers: moderate

As we've seen, time and again now, the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations of American International Pictures did not, in fact, need to adapt Edgar Allan Poe to still receive the name of a Poe story or poem and be released as part of its "franchise."  This had started even when Roger Corman was still on the scenein 1969, he was back at AIP for a short spell, but while I assume James Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff offered him their studio's new "Poe," I equally assume Corman told them to get the hell out of his officeand so it was that Corman's adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" was sent out into the world instead as The Haunted Palace.  But after Corman completed his Poe octology, this trend really accelerated.  Not a single "Poe" film subsequent to The Tomb of Ligeia is any kind of Poe adaptationand I'm using Corman's own extremely liberal renditions of Poe as a benchmark for fidelity here!and hardly any appear to have even been conceived as such, or reconceived to fit.  Somehow the nadir of this process was not yet reached with 1968's "The Conqueror Worm," a resolutely stern historical drama about English witch trials, devoid of the slightest hint of Poevian horror and better-known today under its original title, Witchfinder General.  The following year, however, brought The Oblong Box, and we can give it this: of all the AIP Poes that don't bother adapting any actual Poe, it's the one that most looks like it does.

Of course, if it had been adapting Poe, it's not adapting the specific Poe short story from which it derives its name, though we could have assumed there'd have to be some license with "The Oblong Box," which isn't really film-ready, and, even leaving that aside, would've at least been hard to cast; "The Oblong Box" is a slender little shocker, and not necessarily all that much of a horror story, about a Southern gentleman on a sea trip who spends much of the voyage getting downright pathologically obsessed with the question of why his handsome, brilliant, wonderful best friend has such an ugly chick for a bride, before, eventually, he turns to that other classic question, what's in the box.  (You have undoubtedly correctly guessed for yourself whatever could possibly be in the curiously oblong box that his friend keeps in a seemingly-superfluous extra stateroom, and that it definitely isn't a painting like our stupid narrator thinks it is.  The story managed to surprise me anyway, using the very obviousness of its first twist as a distraction; still, I suspect that if I emphasized that it is, consummately, an Edgar Allan Poe story, that really would constitute a spoiler, and we can add one more dead wife to a list that was no shorter than half a dozen already, the poor son of a bitch.)

The film, The Oblong Box, by contrast, it at least has a guy who gets buried alive, which in these circumstances has to be held to count for something.

It's also about vodoun, not a Poevian theme, but honestly I don't suppose I'd have been astonished if it were; and while I doubt it's really the last film about vodoun reanimating the dead between Hammer's 1966 film, The Plague of the Zombies, and Sony's 1993 film, Weekend At Bernie's II, I think it's a bit of a rarity as far as that stretch goes, and it was a rarity by the 60s already, with classic zombie horror (besides being co-opted as of 1968 with Night of the Living Dead) largely being a thing of the 1930s and 1940s, in part because even by then the optics of African zombie magic was beginning to get a little strained, in part because horror had come up with more dynamic kinds of undead.  (Then again, there's Live and Let Die, plop in the middle of 1973.)  In point of fact, there is no zombie in The Oblong Box, and it goes to sufficient lengths to indicate the neutrality of and even the potential for justice in African zombie magic that there's an unverified item on its Wikipedia page indicating it was banned in Texas for being the late 60s equivalent of too woke.  Well, whatever else, there is a revenant, tortured by one African shaman and brought back by another, but he's in as much command of his faculties as he was when he went under, and returns bent upon his own, personal vengeance.

We get that torture first, inflicted upon one Sir Edward Markham (Allister Williamson), in retribution for an as-yet-unspecified colonial crime in some region of 19th century British West Africa; this is delivered by director Gordon Hessler in alternation between Edward's brother, Julian (Vincent Price), making his way into the village to try to intercede, and extraordinarily-distorted POV shots from Edward's eyes as a native witch doctor (Danny Daniels) threateningly dances up a spell that, we'll learn, twists apart Edward's mind and, indeed, his very face, yet nonetheless leaves him horribly, horribly alive.  We will hereafter decamp back to Britain, where Julian has taken over the economic reins of the household.  He takes care of his brother, after a fashion, keeping Edward locked up and largely incommunicado in a forbidden room upstairs.  Surprisingly, Edward doesn't actually like being imprisoned, and through the Markhams' attorney Kemp (Rupert Davies) he hatches a scheme to escape and regain his position in society, with the logic being that if one witch doctor got him into this mess, another can get him out.  With a potion that induces some good old-fashioned catalepsy, Edward fakes his own death, and while the customary funeral arrangements become their own logistical nightmare with an entirely different corpse to keep up the ruse that Edward only went insane, Edward ultimately gets buried alive with the understanding that Kemp and his hired witch doctor, N'Galo (Harry Baird), will dig him up.

Except they don't.  Instead, by pure luck, Edward is exhumed for the experiments of one Dr. Neuhurtt (Christopher Lee), who, believing he's just getting another random stolen corpse, is surprised to behold the warped visage of this one, and surprised further still when he violently reanimates.  In the meantime, Julian has cheerfully moved on with his life, ready to put the past behind him and give up the moral stain of his colonial holdings, devoting himself to a life of aristocratic poverty with his hot young wife (Hilary Dwyer, forwarded for a few movies here by AIP as a new possible female star, and possibly an artifact of when The Oblong Box was meant to be directed by Witchfinder General's Michael Reeves), which is good enough work, I expect, if you can get it.  Now Edward's really mad.  Extorting cooperation from the grave-robbing physician and concealing his mutilation beneath a red hood, Edward begins his campaign of revenge across London.

This is almost okay, though there's one thing very obviously wrong with it from jump street (besides having not one God damned thing to do with "The Oblong Box"): it forces you to ask, pretty constantly, why Price is playing the wrong part, and why he's not playing the proto-slasher maniac running around town having misadventures and killing several more people than he strictly intended to.  It's more baffling still because in its original development, the Markhams were to be identical twin brothers, which would've neutralized even the mild problem of having your headlining star hidden behind a mask; and I have not run across any reason, not even a bad reason, why this concept was abandoned in favor of the more active half of The Oblong Box's pair of deuteragonists being played by Williamson in his first leading role, and potentially not even really "played" by Williamson in the most robust sense of that term, given that (albeit in another citation-free claim) they had some other, unidentified actor dub in the entirety of Edward's vocal performance.  Price is at least good in this single role, with the small exception of being too old to be anything besides a confirmed bachelorit's unclear why "widower" never occurred to anybody, considering that I believe, without exaggeration, that widowers must constitute three-quarters of Price's horror flick charactersand while it's not the kind of handwringing I go in for, Dwyer simply doesn't appear to have the productive gerontophilia of, for instance, Ligeia's Elizabeth Shepherd, though admittedly Shepherd was five years older than Dwyer is here (and Price, of course, was five years younger when it was back then).  But Price, though pushed out to the sides so that he almost winds up a supporting player here, is at least given the space to do his pathetically-tragic middle-aged man routine (and, hey, at least they came up with something more novel for him than another dead spouse).  His Julian winds up a more complex "good guy" than you'd expect, frequently seeming to be less "good" than he is merely concerned about ignoring anything bad, with Price doing some fine yeoman work to prefigure the dimensions of a screenplay that affords him more complex reasons for being such an off-brand version of "good" than might be evident at first blush.  Williamson, for his part, is not inadequate, though going up against Price means he's inevitably going to wind up anonymous above-and-beyond being stuffed inside that red mask, regardless of whether he's technically doing a fine job of distinguishing between his brother's description of his lunacy and the wrathful unbalance you'd expect from anybody in his situation.

Mostly, then, the problems are just an accumulation of clutter, and the persistent manner in which the film just sort of gets worse as it goes alongas a piece of horror filmmaking, it more-or-less objectively peaks with Hessler's formally-aggressive prologue, and it's not that high a peakand while it could seem like the complications that ensue ought to wrinkle the scenario in all kinds of interesting ways, you don't even get all the way till the end of the movie before it starts to look like what it was, mostly just a strategy to fill out a feature when all that either of its writers had was a beginning, a twist, and an end.  (It's not really one of my own major objections, but I'm sure you wouldn't have to look very long or very hard to find complaints that this movie starring Vincent Price and Christopher Lee only ever gives you approximately thirty seconds of Vincent Price and Christopher Lee onscreen together; this kind of minimal interaction would become something like a tradition in AIP's British co-productions that sought to exploit the marketing cachet of Britain's horror royalty, and it wouldn't resolve until Madhouse where Price and Peter Cushing's screentime together at least feels important.)

But more-or-less the instant Edward wakes up in Neuhurtt's parlor, it becomes not much more than just a wad of stuff happening, under the apparent dictate to make sure this AIP horror movie hit 91 minutes, which is itself pretty strange considering that most of Corman's Poes had been appreciably shorter than that.  I mean, I suppose one of them gets an asterisk, since she's a prostitute attempting to rob him, but I could get annoyed that this murderous, disfigured shut-in gets laid more than I do.  The meanderings up the body count but there's not really a lot in the screenplay or in Hessler's executionthe dance hall/prostitute scene makes its point about Edward's social dislocation very quickly and immediately becomes little more than a logy excuse for Hessler's soon-to-be-signature imagery of tavern guys pawing at busty bargirls' breaststo make it feel like this isn't just something for the movie to kill time with, even if I imagine screenwriter Christopher Wicking (my understanding is that Wicking rewrote Lawrence Huntington's script soup-to-nuts, adding, particularly, the anti-colonial gloss) presumably thought that what he was doing with this long tangent was giving you insight into Edward's character, in preparation for his repositioning as less of a slasher villain and more just the world's most put-upon shmuck.

I wouldn't, however, go so far as to call any of it outright boring (why, when it's actually focused on Edward's roaring rampage of revenge, it's practically good, and while N'Galo actually isn't killed in this scene, the manner of his close brush with death at Edward's hands is enough to trigger a wince).  I was prepared to possibly even give it a pass until we get a look under that hood, and, unfortunately, the movie sort of hinges upon this momentI'm not sure I can name one other film that has made itself more critically dependent upon one single makeup effect, which this film has continually teased by implying what a fucked-up abomination must have been made of Edward by that sinister vodoun rite, uniformly describing it in ways that prompt nauseating mental picturesand, Jesus Christ, what a soft fart of a reveal it is.  This isn't even "I've seen medical photographs and haughtily sneer at your old-time low-budget effects makeup's lack of visceral power" levels of not-disgusting.  It's practically just... not disgusting.  It doesn't really look like effects artist Jimmy Evans finished designing it.  (I can't say if it helps or hinders that Hessler and photographer John Coquillon stage this reveal in highly obscure "night," but we get a better look later and it's certainly not more impressive.)  It looks like a guy who fell on the sidewalk, and possibly not even a guy who entirely failed to break his fall with his hands before his face hit the sidewalk.  It's incredibly weak for a movie that kicked off with some woozy supernatural horror, and has had some decent thrills in between, but which has barely managed "horror" otherwise but by virtue of one more guy in one more Poe "adaptation" getting dirt shoveled on him, and while it's unsporting, I can't help but mention that he's buried alive because he wanted to be and he only spends all of about five hours down there.

Score: 5/10

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