All Hallow’s Lee – THE OBLONG BOX
I’m not going to lie, I’ve been spending an inordinate (some might say unhealthy) amount of time lately thinking about gleeking. I can’t remember exactly when, but at some point in my formative years the ability to gleek was a pretty high class and valued skill. Sure, it served no higher purpose than to separate the Sneetches into their rightful pecking order.
Now, I’ve never learned how to gleek. Mainly because it is stupid, but also because I never tried, because it was stupid. Because I couldn’t do it. Got it?
But what I have been thinking about is not the physical properties of gleeking, but how it was such a defining cultural icon for a sliver of time. This type of thing wasn’t all that uncommon in the 80’s, the Rubik’s Cube, Big League Chew, Garbage Pail Kids and a host of other totally irrelevant items. I don’t know what has replaced gleeking as the defining institutional characteristic of the popular kids, but that really isn’t the point. The point is that gleeking makes me think of Vincent Price. Trust me on this, I have a point.
Sir Edward Markham has been left grossly disfigured due to his awful acts while visiting Africa. Upon arriving back in England he’s kept locked away by his brother, Julian, who doesn’t wish his brother’s disfigurement to disgrace the family. Edward attempts to fake his own death to escape his brother’s capture, only to be sealed in a coffin and buried alive. When a grave robbing doctor frees him from his oblong box, Edward forces him to help him hunt down those who have wronged him, and exact his revenge.
Now Vincent Price has always struck me as someone who was one of those defining actors in pop culture. He’s an actor who excelled at the stage, then radio, before finally becoming the defining horror actor of his time on both television and film.
By the time The Oblong Box came out in 1969, Vincent Price had been a household name for nearly 20 years, and was now firmly moving into the downturn of his career, where he’d be known more for being Vincent Price than for anything else. But while he would become a bit of a caricature of over-acting in his later years, he never lacked in giving a quality effort and performance. Plus, that voice. Is there one that more fits the horror genre than his?
The Oblong Box is clearly a Vincent Price vehicle, as the weak-willed brother Julian, Price works well as a man tortured by what he’s been through in Africa, and terrified of what might happen to him and his family if anyone ever finds out just how awful it was. Sure he over does it, in that totally Price-ian way, but it’s an enjoyable enough performance.
Alister Williamson also is solid as his sociopathic brother Edward, a man whose face is kept hidden under a crimson mask, whose stylized looked would be cribbed time and again in future horror films to come, and which also calls to mind The Mask of the Red Death. Edward is an interesting character, a man who is written to be a true malevolent force, bent on revenge for his being buried alive. Only later it is revealed that a bit of righteousness also might fuel his rage, making his character far more complex than your typical hooded slasher might seem.
Christopher Lee, in spite of being a well-known star at this point in his career, has a relatively small bit part in the film as the grave robbing Dr Neuhartt. A man who despises the rabble he must employ to find him fresh bodies so that he may better educate himself on the human body. He is a criminal not by choice, but he is soon entrapped by Edward and forced to do his bidding. They form an unlikely alliance, one Edward hope will develop into a friendship, and their odd couple relationship could have formed the basis of an interesting film in and of itself, but instead really only helps pad the running time of the film before Edward begins his bloody crusade.
I wish I could say I liked The Oblong Box, Price and Lee are, of course, a treat to watch, and Edward is a somewhat interesting and complex villain for the film. The film also tries quite hard to be a visually interesting film, using wide angle lenses, a POV camera and a litany of extreme close-ups to give the film an unsettling visual style.
But The Oblong Box suffers from some truly turgid plotting that makes the 90 minute run time seem as if it was twice that. The film inserts far too many characters that serve almost nothing but to be cannon fodder for Edward, yet time and again here comes another character introduction to muddle the plot, puff up the run time and eventually die a not-to-gruesome death on screen.
As if that isn’t enough, the duel mysteries of what Edward’s face looks like and just what terrible thing happened in Africa have such flaccid payoffs that they drain what little momentum the film has in its final 10 minutes. By the time the film gets to its supposedly dramatic final shot you just want the wet noodle of a story to mercifully be put out of its misery.
It’s not hard to see then how my mind kept drifting to thoughts of gleeking while The Oblong Box played. Price and Lee always struck me as a very classic example of a passing of the baton in the horror genre. They are both of a similar striking stature, and both filled with gravitas in even the smallest of roles. So while I don’t know what would come to replace gleeking in schoolyards across the country as the newest form of weird entertainment, I think I know who replaced Vincent Price in the hearts of horror fans.