In spite of the presence of both Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, this is an entirely forgettable entry in the cycle of American International Pictures Edgar Allan Poe films. While the earlier films were directed by Roger Corman, this time the directing chores fall to Gordon Hessler. His credits indicate that he must have been seen as the late sixties-early seventies Corman by AIP because he also helmed Scream And Scream Again, Murders In The Rue Morgue and Cry Of The Banshee for them in rapid succession.
Hessler would finally escape the shadow of Corman and all those Poe movies by moving on to more important projects like KISS Meets The Phantom Of The Park and a pair of Sho Kosugi movies (Pray For Death and Rage Of Honor). But it really wouldn’t be fair to lay the blame for the movie’s sheer nothingness at his feet. To his credit, he does allow the action to breathe more than we’re accustomed to in these types of things, chiefly by filming outdoors instead of on some foggy soundstage with a painting of a creepy old house as the backdrop. The fact that the action is in service to a fairly run-of-the-mill and surprisingly lackadaisical revenge scheme is the fault of the faulty script more than anything else.
Opening in Africa where a group of natives are nailing Vincent Price’s brother up to cross and performing some horrible rite on him, the movie immediately ditches those environs for the more familiar 19th century English countryside. Anyone who has ever watched a movie with Price, Lee, or Peter Cushing will recognize the manor houses, the rowdy tavern filled with lusty wenches, and the gala ball that sees our main characters waltzing around until something frightening occurs.
And just make sure that the movie fits our expectations like the velvet glove a lord will inevitably use to slap some impertinent inferior, it’s all mixed up with that favorite British past time of the age, body snatching. You sit through enough of these movies and you begin to wonder if there was an unopened grave in all of England during the 1800s. Graverobbers were probably tripping over one another’s shovels as frequently as they made their moonlit treks to the cemetery for whatever local doctor was trying to advance the cause of science by hacking up dead drunks and whores.
On its face, body snatching and witch doctors don’t sound like an unappealing combination. And plus we’ve got the titular oblong box floating around out there, right? Except that it turns out the oblong box in question is just some dumb old coffin!
But what hideous secret is hidden in the coffin? What unspeakable terror does it contain? What force of pure evil is it barely imprisoning from escaping and laying waste to the surrounding countryside? Um, the body of Vincent Price’s brother who got all witch doctored up in Africa, was brought home, locked up and apparently died.
Well, what did you expect to be in there? It was a coffin for crying out loud! But did I say “apparently” in relation to his demise? Could they also be throwing in a little premature burial action for us as well? Sure! Heck, there’s room in that coffin for the kitchen sink, too! (This is one of those movies that had the attention span of a four year-old addicted Twinkies, Diet Mountain Dew and the Power Rangers.)
After the brother (Edward) is brought back from Africa, he’s kept chained up by Price (Julian) because his face is so nasty, no one would want to see it. Edward has these friends that are using a witch doctor in some dopey scheme to break him out of his bedroom. This involves faking his death and rescuing him later. The only problem is that once Edward appears to die, Julian immediately nails him up in a coffin and prepares for a funeral. Despite Edward being hosed, his friends aren’t because while they aren’t going to get paid by Edward for rescuing him, Julian will pay them to procure a substitute body that can pass for Edward at Edward’s funeral!
Christopher Lee finally enters the picture as the doctor who requires a steady supply of illegal stiffs to keep up his mad skills as a sawbones. His boys manage to dig up Edward and haul his not-quite-dead butt back to the lab and the next we know, Edward is alive and well and blackmailing the good doctor into letting him move in with him.
Donning a silly-looking red mask that makes you think he’s going to be wrestling at the local armory later that night, Edward sets about either getting revenge or getting laid – it all depends on his mood. Now, Christopher Lee can tolerate body snatching, a murder here and there, and even being blackmailed by a raving maniac, but he will not have the servant girls screwing a guy in a red mask! That’s all just a bit gauche for his tastes! Edward’s girlfriend gets fired and in one of those coincidences these movies trade in, she gets a new job at Julian’s house!
Edward sporadically remembers that he’s after some kind of revenge (I don’t even think he knew for sure what his beef was until the witch doctor his buddies had previously hired filled him in on the entirely predictable and low-wattage secret of what happened back in Africa) and kills a series of people before finally meeting back up with his brother to hash things out.
Along with the lame events in Africa the movie tried to build a mystery around, the mystery surrounding what happened to Edward’s face is equally unrewarding. Kept from our view for virtually the entire film and referenced once as having been turned inside out, the only horrid thing about it once we finally got to see it was the make up job.
Price and Lee only share a single, brief scene together and are never given much interesting to do (especially Lee’s part which could have been played by any British actor) since the story seems intent on wandering over as much as the horror map as humanly possible. It’s all a mixed up mess that doesn’t amount to nearly all the ingredients they desperately dumped into it. Undaunted, Price and Lee would try it all again with director Hessler in the following year’s Scream And Scream Again.
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