The Oblong Box/Dance, Mephisto (1969) **
One of the last of the AIP Poe Movies, The Oblong Box/Dance, Mephisto is also arguably the one that has the least to do with the story from which it takes its title. Poe’s “The Oblong Box” is about an artist who goes completely out of his mind while attempting to smuggle his dead wife’s body back to her mother’s home in New York, hidden in a large (duh) oblong box. This movie, on the other hand, is about an English nobleman, cursed by an African witch doctor, whose friends’ efforts to rescue him from I’m not really sure what result in his being buried alive. A box meeting the description of the title is about all the two have in common. Otherwise, The Oblong Box is mainly remarkable for two things. First, it marks the first time Vincent Price and Christopher Lee appeared in a movie together, and secondly, it makes a fascinating study in what can happen when skillful direction (at the hands of Gordon Hessler, whose non-Roger-Corman-ness makes this arguably not a true AIP Poe Movie) meets a bewilderingly stupid script.
Hessler, in fact, is so capable that The Oblong Box’s bewildering stupidity actually comes across as studied mysteriousness for the first 30-odd minutes. It seems at first (but wrongly) that the movie has kind of a Peter Straub thing going, that its story is being told in cumulative layers that will gradually make sense of the initially baffling action. And that action certainly is baffling. We begin in Africa, with a tribal shaman conducting some ceremony over a crucified white man while his people look on, assisting with the ceremony where they can. For a few moments here, I almost thought somebody had taped a Busta Rhymes video over the beginning of the movie-- you watch the shaman’s contortions and gesticulations through the camera’s fish-eye lens, and see if you can honestly disagree with me. The ceremony is cut short when Julian Markham (Vincent Price, in one of his most tasteful and understated performances) forces his way into the shaman’s tent. Markham takes one look at the crucified man, and gasps, “Edward!” Then the credits roll.
The next scene has us back in England. Edward (Alister Williamson, who mainly made the kind of movies I never ever watch, though he earlier had a tiny role in The Evil of Frankenstein), who by the way is really Sir Edward as well as being Julian’s brother, is now confined to a room on the top floor of the Markham manor. It seems his experiences in Africa have left him quite mad, and judging from the fact that the camera never shows us his face, I’d guess that the witch doctor’s ministrations have left him one ugly son of a bitch, too. I’m not exactly sure why Julian Markham is keeping Sir Edward hidden away. Nor do I have any idea why Samuel Trench (Peter Arne, of The Black Torment and AIP’s Murders in the Rue Morgue) and Mark Norton (Carl Rigg, from Cry of the Banshee) want to free him from his confinement. All I can tell you is that Trench used to manage the Markham plantation in Africa (Aha! So that’s what Edward and Julian were doing over there!), and that he and Norton are the only people other than Julian and his butler who have any idea that there’s something wrong with Sir Edward.
I also don’t have any idea why Trench and Norton have hired a second witch doctor (Harry Baird, from Taur the Mighty and 1000 Convicts and a Woman) to make them a chemical with which to fake Sir Edward’s death. You’d think there’d be an easier way to get the man out of the house than that! But that is the plan, and apparently, it is also part of the scheme to have this second witch doctor (N’Galo’s his name) try to do something about Sir Edward’s face once the first phase has succeeded. But all does not go according to plan, and though the drugging of Sir Edward is a success, and his faked death convinces its intended audience, Julian moves too swiftly for Trench and Norton, and boxes Sir Edward’s “body” up and locks it away in the attic before the two conspirators can get at it. Why? That’s one of the few things in this movie that does make sense. Custom demands that a dead Markham be displayed on his deathbed for a couple of days, and the manor opened up to the great unwashed so that they might gaze upon their deceased lord one last time. But because Sir Edward has been hit with some kind of voodoo ugly stick, Julian wants no one to see him. Instead, Julian means to blackmail Trench (who he knows has been embezzling plantation funds for years) into robbing a grave to procure a substitute body. This substitute stiff will be put on display, and then returned to its grave immediately after the real Sir Edward is buried.
But Trench thinks grave-robbing is too dangerous, so instead, he and Norton (whom Trench is somehow blackmailing in his turn) kill the proprietor of the town whorehouse and press his body into service as a stand-in for Sir Edward! Excuse me?! Grave-robbing is too dangerous, so Trench and Norton commit murder instead?! Yeah, whatever... The upshot of the whole deal is that when N’Galo’s voodoo drug wears off, and Sir Edward awakens, the baronet is still nailed in his coffin, and is in fact being buried at that very moment.
Meanwhile, a surgeon named Neuhart (Christopher Lee, whose talents are almost totally wasted here) hires his favorite body snatcher to bring him some spare parts. The grave-robber ends up picking Sir Edward’s coffin (despite the fact that getting at it means killing the night watchman-- there’s got to be a better way to steal corpses than that!), and you can imagine Neuhart’s surprise when he opens the lid, and finds its occupant alive and pissed off. Sir Edward and Neuhart then reach an agreement, predicated on a mutual understanding of each other’s criminality. Neuhart will put Sir Edward up in his guest room (or Sir Edward will tell the police where the doctor gets the specimens for his study of anatomy), giving him a base of operations from which he can go about “collecting his debts” (knowledge of which activity gives Neuhart the assurance that Sir Edward won’t rat him out anyway).
But let us not forget the other subplot. Julian is getting married to a woman less than half his age, by the name of Elizabeth (Hilary Dwyer, from The Conqueror Worm). The inclusion of this character serves mainly to give us a potential victim who does not somehow deserve to be one, and when Elizabeth hires Dr. Neuhart’s maid (whom the doctor fired when she and his “guest” expressed a little more interest in each other than Neuhart was comfortable with-- I think the girl just likes the mystery of a rich man in a red velvet mask), we know immediately what is being set up.
So just what “debts” does Sir Edward mean to collect? Jesus, it seems just about everybody in this movie “owes” him something! Trench and Norton, of course, left him to suffocate in his coffin when their little scheme went awry. That will prove very expensive for both of them. Then there’s Julian, who it turns out was the Markham that the African shaman really wanted to curse-- something about his accidentally having run over a small boy with his horse on the plantation. Sir Edward was merely the first Markham the witch doctor found, and this state of affairs makes Julian’s “debt” to his brother heavy indeed. And just for the hell of it, we’ll throw in the murders of Dr. Neuhart (whom Sir Edward decides he doesn’t trust after all) and a prostitute or two, along with a less successful attack on N’Galo (whose powers prove unequal to the task of repairing Sir Edward’s face). And incidentally to Sir Edward’s killing spree, we’ll finally get to see his deformed face, at which point we’ll all say, “What? Is that all?!”
What we’ll never learn is why Trench and Norton did what they did to set the whole sorry business in motion in the first place. What was the connection between them and Sir Edward that led them to hire a witch doctor to cure him? What were they thinking that prevented them from just coming right out and telling Julian what they planned to do? I mean, it isn’t as though Julian wouldn’t take seriously the power of African magic, not after seeing what it did to disfigure his brother. And if they absolutely couldn’t tell Julian, why the hell did they use that cockamamie scheme with the voodoo drug? Couldn’t they have, I don’t know, gotten a ladder and climbed up to Sir Edward’s window after Julian and the butler had gone to bed? During its first half hour, I had high hopes for The Oblong Box. But as the film progressed, those hopes gave way to an escalating sense of dismay as it became increasingly clear that not enough remained of the film’s running time to answer any of the questions that would make sense of the story. As it was, I counted myself lucky as the credits rolled that the filmmakers deigned to tell me why the witch doctor had deformed Sir Edward at all. Gordon Hessler clearly did his damnedest with The Oblong Box, and while his efforts may temporarily disguise all the myriad things that are wrong with it, he can’t stop the truth from coming out altogether.