IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE OBLONG BOX (1969)

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Oblong-Box-poster

 

This one is a reprint from September 2010, originally published in The Official Newsletter of the Horror Writers Association:

 

IN THE SPOOKGLIGHT

By

Michael Arruda

 

Vincent Price made a career playing over-the-top hammy dramatic characters in colorful period pieces in the 1960s.  He’s at it again in THE OBLONG BOX (1969), a film in which he is paired with Christopher Lee.

THE OBLONG BOX is loosely based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name—very loosely, as in just borrowing the title!

The story begins in Africa, with Sir Edward Markham (Alister Williamson) tortured by natives, his face apparently scarred beyond recognition. Markham’s brother Sir Julian Markham (Vincent Price) arrives too late to save him.

They return to England, with Sir Edward now a crazed lunatic. Sir Julian is forced to keep his brother locked in chains in an upstairs bedroom of their mansion.  With the help of a family friend Samuel Trench (Peter Arne), Edward plans his escape.  They hire an African witch doctor to supply Edward with a drug to imitate death.  The plan is for Edward to be removed from the house as a “corpse” only to be revived and rescued later by Trench.

However, Julian immediately seals Edward’s lifeless body inside a coffin and unknowingly buries his brother alive. Trench decides rescuing Edward from a premature burial is too dangerous and out of the question, and so he leaves him for dead.

Meanwhile, Dr. Neuhartt (Christopher Lee) has been paying grave robbers to supply him with bodies for his research. As luck would have it, his grave robbers dig up Edward. When Neuhartt opens the coffin inside his laboratory, Edward attacks him but doesn’t kill him, deciding he could use the doctor as an accomplice.

Edward then dons a crimson hood and seeks revenge against both Trench and his brother, going on a bloody rampage through the countryside, slitting the throats of his victims. Eventually, Julian discovers his brother is still alive, setting the stage for the final confrontation between brothers, as well as the obligatory unmasking of Edward’s hideous face.

THE OBLONG BOX has long been considered too long, too slow, and too rambling by critics, but I’ve always liked its intricate plot with its many pathways.   It takes the viewer along a very creepy ride, with premature burials, African voodoo, a masked maniac, and bloody murders.

THE OBLONG BOX was supposed to have been directed by Michael Reeves, the talented young director who had just finished another Price movie, THE CONQUEROR WORM (1968) [also known as THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL), a film that had been very well received. Sadly, Reeves died before he could direct THE OBLONG BOX, and so the directing duties went to Gordon Hessler.

A lot has been made of Hessler’s lackluster direction of this picture, and I would have to agree. In spite of its strong story, there really aren’t a lot of memorable scenes in THE OBLONG BOX.  On the contrary, there are a lot of weak scenes. The bloody killings are tepid and the blood obviously fake, and the final confrontation between Edward and Julian is also a disappointment, as well as the unmasking scene.  The make-up job on Edward’s face is embarrassingly routine. Still, Hessler can direct.  Five years later, he would be at the helm of THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974), one of the best of the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movies.

The acting is just OK. With Vincent Price, you get exactly what you would expect, an over-the-top hammy performance. As always, he’s fun to watch.  Christopher Lee is cast against type as the decent Dr. Neuhartt, but sadly, there’s not a lot for him to do with this role.

Alister Williamson is a disappointment as Sir Edward Markham.  As the main villain, Edward should dominate this movie. He doesn’t. Had Christopher Lee played Edward, THE OBLONG BOX would have been a much better movie. Of course, I can understand Lee not always wanting to play the bad guy. Trouble is, he’s just so damned good at it! I wish he had played the role.

Speaking of bad guys, probably the most memorable performance in THE OBLONG BOX belongs to Peter Arne as Samuel Trench. Trench is the slimiest character in this movie, and Arne plays him to the hilt.

But the most disappointing part of this movie is that in spite of the pairing of the two horror superstars, Price and Lee only share one brief scene together. Rip-off!

And the final nail in the coffin— heh, heh— regarding THE OBLONG BOX is that its ending doesn’t make any sense. It’s one of those endings where you see it and you know it was shot just to have a shocking last scene, even though based upon what has happened before, it makes little or no sense.

But even with all these flaws, I still like THE OBLONG BOX, for the simple reason that I love its plot, an exciting roller coaster ride of frights and thrills.  The screenplay was written by Lawrence Huntington, with additional dialogue by Christopher Wicking.

THE OBLONG BOX is an example of a movie that succeeds because of the strength of its writing. The direction is fair and the acting okay, but it’s the writing that lifts this one to memorable status, which is a rare thing in movies, a medium dominated by directors and actors.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

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Happy Birthday, Boris Karloff!

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Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster in FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

Happy Birthday, Boris Karloff!

Karloff, the king of horror, was born on November 23, 1887.

Karloff made over 70 movies before playing the Monster in FRANKENSTEIN (1931), the film which changed his career and made him a household name.  He would reprise the role twice, in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939), and of course would go on to make a ton of horror movies over the next four decades, from the 1930s to the 1960s.

To celebrate his birthday, here’s a look at a handful of Karloff’s most memorable horror movie performances:

FRANKENSTEIN (1931) – The Monster- there’s a reason this role turned Boris Karloff into a star.  His Monster is both brutal and sympathetic.  Insanely powerful, he can kill in a heartbeat, and yet this newly born creature is simply terribly misunderstood and maltreated.  With a remarkable make-up job by Jack Pierce, no movie Frankenstein monster has ever looked as much like a walking corpse as this one.  If you only see one Boris Karloff movie in your life (which would be shame- see more!) see FRANKENSTEIN.

THE MUMMY (1932) – Imhotep – For my money, Karloff’s interpretation of Imhotep remains the most effective movie mummy performance of all time.  There still has not been another one like it.  In spite of a plot that is very similar to DRACULA (1931), THE MUMMY is a superior horror movie, and Boris Karloff’s performance as Imhotep is a major reason why.

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Karloff as Imhotep in THE MUMMY (1932)

THE BLACK CAT (1934) – Hjalmar Poelzig – In this classic first-time pairing of horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Karloff plays the devil worshipping Hjalmar Poelzig, pitted against Bela Lugosi’s heroic Dr. Vitus Werdegast.  Superior horror film has little in common with the Poe tale on which it is so loosely based, but it has a top-notch script full of classic lines, and it features two performances by Karloff and Lugosi in their prime, doing what they do best.  Best watched late at night with the lights out.

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Karloff in THE BLACK CAT (1934).

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) – The Monster- The Monster speaks!  So boasted this movie’s tagline, and it’s true, Karloff’s monster learns to speak in this classic sequel to the iconic original.  Critics consider BRIDE to be the best FRANKENSTEIN movie of all time, but I still slightly prefer the original, if only because it remains much scarier.  But Karloff takes his performance as the Monster here to another level.  It’s arguably the best performance of the Frankenstein monster of all time.

THE RAVEN (1935) – Edward Bateman -The second Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi pairing. Karloff plays Edward Bateman, a criminal transformed into a hideous monster by Lugosi’s insane Poe-obsessed Dr. Richard Vollin. Another classic pairing of these two iconic horror film stars.

THE BLACK ROOM (1935)- Baron Gregor de Berghman/Anton de Berghman – Karloff has a field day in a dual role as twins, one good, one bad.  Karloff delivers one of his best performances in this little known period piece horror drama.  Look fast for an uncredited Edward van Sloan as, of course, a doctor.

THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) – John Gray – Another superb Karloff performance.  He plays John Gray, the body snatcher who robs graves for Dr. “Toddy”  MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). Based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson and the real life story of Dr. Knox and grave robbers Burke and Hare.  Produced by Val Lewton and directed by Robert Wise. Horror film making at its best.  Also features Bela Lugosi in a small supporting role.

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Karloff in THE BODY SNATCHER (1945).

ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945) – General Nikolas Pherides- Karloff plays a hawkish general who uses his ruthless methods to protect a group of islanders who believe they are being hunted by a vampire-like creature in this intriguing well-made chiller by producer Val Lewton.

THE TERROR (1963) – Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe –  An aging Karloff stars opposite a young Jack Nicholson in this haunted house tale, reportedly shot by director Roger Corman in four days.

BLACK SABBATH (1963) – Gorca – Karloff is at his scary best in this horror anthology by Mario Bava.  Karloff appears as a “Wurdalak” or vampire, and he’s downright frightening.  This is the only time Karloff ever played a vampire in the movies.

So, there you have it, just a few of Boris Karloff’s more memorable horror movie roles. To celebrate his birthday, you can’t go wrong watching these or any of Karloff’s 205 screen credits, for that matter.

Happy Birthday, Boris!

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964)

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tomb of ligeia - posterThis is a reprint of a column that originally ran in the October 2007 issue of The HWA Newsletter, on the Vincent Price movie THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964). It’s reprinted in the current October 2015 issue of the HWA Newsletter as well as here.  And don’t forget:  if you like this column, you can read 115 more in my IN THE SPOOKLIGHT collection, available both as an EBook (www.neconebooks.com)  and in a print-on-demand edition (https://www.createspace.com/4293038.).

Enjoy!

—Michael

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

I prefer horror to be an emotional experience, which is why, sometimes Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations don’t work for me.

THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964), starring Vincent Price, Corman’s eighth and final Poe adaptation, is a perfect example.

Technically, the film is flawless.  It’s arguably Corman’s best job at the helm.  The film looks phenomenal, there’s great use of locations, and the camera work is extremely stylish.  For these reasons alone watching THE TOMB OF LIGEIA can be as rewarding and mouthwatering as reading a good novel.  Your intelligence won’t be let down.

It also has a decent screenplay by Robert Towne, which lives up to its source material.

However, THE TOMB OF LIGEIA has never been one of my favorites because as it plays out, it’s as cold as a corpse with about as much life (unless of course you’re talking vampire and zombies, which get around rather well, but there ain’t no vampires or zombies here!).  Perhaps this is on purpose, and perhaps it’s just another sign of Corman’s genius.  Could be.  But for me, the fact remains that as I watch THE TOMB OF LIGEIA, and as I recognize while watching that “hmm, this movie is extremely well made,” I also realize I’m not emotionally invested in the characters or the situations.

THE TOMB OF LIGEIA tells the story of Verden Fell (Vincent Price) who’s— what else?— brooding over the death of his wife, Ligeia.  When a new woman, the Lady Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd, in a dual role, as she also appears as Ligeia) expresses interest in Verden, the ghost of Ligeia takes offense, setting off the usual, standard ghostly shenanigans.  We learn that Verden isn’t mourning his deceased wife— he’s afraid of her, afraid that she’s not really dead.  Turns out Ligeia was a bold, energetic woman who had asserted she would never die, and she definitely got inside Verden’s head.

It’s this part of the film that works best for me.  Is Ligeia really a ghost?   Or is it Verden?  So mind-washed by his deceased wife that he himself is causing the mayhem?  On this level, the film works well.

And the performances by the two leads are terrific.  Price stands out as Verden.  His look, with the dark brown hair and dark glasses, to shield his ultra-sensitive eyes from the light, is unique to this movie.  Price moves through this role effortlessly, as if he could do it in his sleep.  Elizabeth Shepherd is just as good as The Lady Rowena.  Her portrayal of Rowena as a strong woman who is not intimidated by evil spirits is refreshing.  Tomb-of-Ligeia-Price

But THE TOMB OF LIGEIA fails to connect on an emotional level.  Price’s Verden isn’t that likeable, and while Shepherd’s Lady Rowena is, she’s not a central enough character to carry the movie on her own.  I don’t really care about these characters, and as a result, I don’t care all that much about what happens to them, which makes for a lackluster movie viewing experience.

THE TOMB OF LIGEIA is a mixed bag, which for Halloween, is OK.  In a trick or treat bag, chances are you’ll get candy you’re not crazy about along with your favorites, but still, it’s candy, and you’re not going to throw it away.  Likewise, THE TOMB OF LIGEIA is a stylish, almost beautiful horror movie that is pleasing to the eye and to the intellect, but not so attractive to the heart.  For those of us who tell tales, the heart can be the difference maker.  Still, it’s Corman, it’s Price, it’s Poe, it’s candy.

It’s Halloween.  Eat up.

(October 2007)

MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES: THE BLACK CAT (1934)

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MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES:  THE BLACK CAT (1934)

By

Michael Arruda

Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi exchange barbs throughout THE BLACK CAT (1934).

Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi exchange barbs throughout THE BLACK CAT (1934).

 

 

Welcome to the latest edition of MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES, the column where we look at great quotes from even greater horror movies.  Up today is one of my favorite horror movies from the 1930s, Universal’s THE BLACK CAT (1934), starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

THE BLACK CAT, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and loosely based on the Edgar Allan Poe tale, was the first time Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi starred together in the same movie.  It united these two horror icons when they were both at the height of their careers, and so this film is full of fine moments from both these actors.

As such, THE BLACK CAT is packed with memorable lines.  Here’s a look at some of these quotes from THE BLACK CAT, screenplay by Peter Ruric:

Early on, Bela Lugosi gets most of the screen time and dominates the first third of this movie, a tale in which he and Karloff play adversaries.  Lugosi plays Dr. Vitus Verdegast, a man who returns to his native country after a fifteen year confinement in a military prison to seek vengeance against his former commander, the brilliant Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), who according to Verdegast not only abandoned his troops but also took away Verdegast’s wife and daughter.

But why take my word for it?  Let Lugosi explain his story himself, as he says to the young American couple Peter Allison (David Manners) and his wife Joan (Julie Bishop) who are vacationing in Hungary:

VERDEGAST: Have you ever heard of Kurgaal? It is a prison below Omsk. Many men have gone there. Few have returned. I have returned. After fifteen yearsI have returned.

I’ve written about this before, but you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Lugosi deliver lines in a movie.  There is something so poetic about the way Lugosi speaks.  Part of it is his accent, of course, but the other part is that early on Lugosi didn’t know a lot of English and he had to learn all his lines phonetically, which contributed greatly to his signature speaking style.

Even after Karloff enters the film, when Verdegast and Poelzig finally meet, Lugosi continues to dominate, and continues to get most of the lines.  It’s almost as if director Ulmer was taking full advantage of their famous movie roles, Lugosi as Dracula, who mesmerized his victims with his language, and Karloff as the Frankenstein monster, who hardly said a word and was mute in two of the three Frankenstein films in which Karloff played him.

Lugosi speaks, Karloff listens, as in this scene where Lugosi’s Verdegast lambastes Karloff’s Poelzig for his past actions:

VERDEGAST: You sold Marmorus to the Russians. You scurried away in the night and left us to die. Is it to be wondered that you should choose this place to build your house? A masterpiece of construction built upon the ruins of the masterpiece of destruction – a masterpiece of murder.

And of course Poelzig’s house is a masterpiece of construction because he’s a genius architect and has built a futuristic home which includes sliding doors, radio and television monitors, and all sorts of other goodies that were ahead of their time.

There’s also a good deal of humor in THE BLACK CAT, as in this scene where Peter Allison tries to dismiss what’s going on as hogwash, but Verdegast won’t let him:

PETER:  I don’t know.  It all sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me!

VERDEGAST:  Superstition, perhaps.  Baloney, perhaps not.

In fact, David Manners, who played Peter Allison, usually stuck in overdramatic romantic lead roles, actually gets to show his acting chops in this one and is able to display some humor of his own, as in this scene where he reacts to Verdegast’s comments about Poelzig.

PETER (talking about Poelzig):  If I wanted to build a nice, cozy, unpretentious insane asylum, he’d be the man for it.

As the film goes on, Karloff’s Poelzig begins to assert his dominance and wrests control of the movie from Lugosi’s Verdegast.  As such, while he had been quiet early on, later Karloff becomes the one with the memorable lines, as in this scene where he challenges Verdegast to a deadly game of chess, with the wager being Joan’s soul.

POELZIG:  Come, Vitus. Are we men or are we children? Of what use are all these melodramatic gestures? You say your soul was killed, that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmaros 15 years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead?  And now you come to me, playing at being an avenging angel, childishly thirsting for my blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life.We shall play a little game, Vitus. A game of death, if you like.

And as they approach a chess board, the light bulb goes off in Poelzig’s head.

POELZIG: Do you dare play chess with me for her?

VERDEGAST:  Yes. I will even play you chess for her. Provided if I win, they are free to go.

POELZIG:  You won’t win, Vitus.

That last line is expressed with so much confidence that in spite of everything Lugosi has done in this film, there’s no way you can envision him outdueling Karloff at this point.

This scene leads to my favorite line in the entire film.  As Poelzig and Verdegast play chess, Peter’s frustrations grow as he’s trying to get his wife away from the house, and his efforts continue to be thwarted.  The only car is not working, and so Poelzig tells Peter that he’s welcome to use the phone to call for a ride.  Peter does, and to his chagrin, finds that the phone is dead, which with great exasperation is what he tells Poelzig, information that seems to cause the evil architect much delight.

Poelzig turns to Verdegast and nearly sings the following lines with glee:

POELZIG:  The phone is dead.  Do you hear that, Vitus?  Even the phone is dead!

 

That last line, “even the phone is dead,’ nails the truth behind everything that has been occurring in Poelzig’s home:  the house is the embodiment of death.  Everything within, even the inanimate objects, are soaked in death, and no one who goes there leaves alive, which might explain Poelzig’s motives for practicing Satanism.  It’s his way of conquering death.

I said earlier that this movie was loosely based on Poe’s THE BLACK CAT, and really, the only connection is the title itself, which both stories share.  Other than this, they pretty much have nothing in common.  This film is only called THE BLACK CAT because Verdegast suffers from a fear of cats, which is revealed when he recoils at the sight of a cat inside Poelzig’s home.  Peter is shocked at this reaction, and Poelzig offers this explanation, seeming ecstatic that his adversary is afflicted with this weakness.

POELZIG:  You must be indulgent of Dr. Verdegast’s weakness. He is the unfortunate victim of one of the commoner phobias, but in an extreme form. He has an intense and all-consuming horror of cats.

 

We’ll let Lugosi get the last word.  At the end of the movie, Verdegast and Poelzig confront each other, and after a scuffle, it’s Verdegast who comes out on top.  He binds Poelzig and prepares to torture him:

VERDEGAST:  The murderer of 10,000 men returns to the place of his crime. Those who died were fortunate. I was taken prisoner to Kurgaal. Kurgaal, where the soul is killed, slowly.

Fifteen years I’ve rotted in the darkness… waiting. Not to kill you, but to kill your soul – slowly.

THE BLACK CAT is a phenomenal horror movie, one that no horror fan or horror film scholar should miss.  I hope you enjoyed these memorable quotes from this classic movie, THE BLACK CAT.

See you again next time.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael