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The Oblong Box / Scream and Scream Again

After Roger Corman stopped making his series of Poe adaptations, such as Masque of the Red Death, American International Pictures tried to continue feeding off their success. But the heyday was over, audiences wanted more visceral thrills, and without Corman and his crew the results were at best troubled and tiresome. They replaced Corman's colorful handmade moods with a heavier reliance on gross-out shocks and spurting arteries in flicks that were as graceless as plucked nose hairs. More aortas than atmosphere. Still, they can be entertaining in that "It's 9 p.m., the wife's out of town, and Domino's delivers" sort of way. The two flicks double-featured here offer up some attention-getting moments, but more often they squander their opportunities, chiefly the bringing together of horror cinema's Holy Trinity from the Elvis-to-Beatles generation — Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing.

In The Oblong Box (1969), Sir Edward Markham (Alastair Williamson), gruesomely disfigured by African natives, is kept chained out of sight by his brother Julian (Price). Naturally, psychotic Sir Edward escapes to don a hood and embark on a killing spree. With the help of African witch doctor N'Galo (Harry Baird), Julian attempts to make Sir Edward appear dead to get him out of the way. But graverobbers unwittingly deliver the prematurely buried man to Dr. Neuhardt (Lee), who pries up the lid and finds himself at the hands of its thoroughly pissed off occupant. Although Neuhardt tries to help Sir Edward and makes him a house guest, salvation gives way to throat-slittings, gushing blood, and buxom female corpses aplenty, making this grim and gruesome fare without the fun we look for in such doings.

Scream and Scream Again (1970) came with ad copy trumpeting the presence of Price, Lee, and Cushing, but we don't see much of any of them and — except for one lickity-split encounter at the end with Lee and Price — they never appear together in a scene. The script is a mom's meatloaf seemingly assembled from pages lifted from a horror film, a police procedural, a modern-dress Frankenstein sci-fi cheapie, and an international Fourth Reich paranoia caper all tossed into the air and then hastily scooped up and stapled together into a "What the hell is going on?" plot. There's one serial killer who rapes his victims and drinks their blood, one oh-so-English Detective Superintendent (Alfred Marks, who's terrific), a Mad Doctor (Price, who's not, alas), a vat of acid for quick body disposal, police chases, a super-baddie who escapes handcuffs by tearing off his own hand, several veddy British droll bon mots, a Nazi-like regime setting up shop in a Nameless East European State, unasked-for amputations, and a would-be army of world-dominating synthetic "composite" supermen. Price goes through the motions with little of his customary relish. Lee wanders in and out a few times as a security minister, and Peter Cushing is dispatched right after he shows up.

Both flicks teamed director Gordon Hessler (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad) and cinematographer John Coquillon (Straw Dogs, AIP's classic The Witchfinder General/The Conqueror Worm), so they're interesting to watch from a genre cognoscente's point of view. However, both suffer from plodding, confused scripts by Christopher Wicking as they shamble about without point or spirit, making us wonder if anyone involved really gave a damn. The Oblong Box does have moments of interest, especially when viewed through the filters one applies to studious observation of late-'60s Gothic cinema. But fine actress Hilary Dwyer is woefully underused, and a thickly troweled "sin and retribution" subtext of British guilt over the Empire's colonial exploits in Africa just pads a story that not even ample wenching and nudity and a dwarf prostitute can redeem. Although Oblong was Price's thirteenth film based (however loosely) on a Poe story, neither the actor nor the author is well served or remembered here.

What keeps Scream and Scream Again more or less watchable is its delirious loopiness and half-ass faux artiness combined with a groovy-kitschy Mod Brit sheen. It tracks like a pulpy potboiler paperback that Michael Crichton reads when no one's looking. (The script was, in fact, inspired by a trashy novel, The Disoriented Man, by Peter Saxon.) It's a flabby mess that's neither suspenseful nor in any other way particularly good, and it certainly lacks the cheery charm that elevates The Abominable Dr. Phibes, but it does exude a trippy enjoyability in its own "Huh?" fashion.

*          *          *

MGM's DVD double-bill of The Oblong Box and Scream and Scream Again restores both to their welcome widescreen images. They're in fine shape with trouble-free anamorphic transfers (1.85:1). Each sports audio that's plenty clear and solid in DD 2.0 mono. This edition of Scream, in fact, restores its original music track cues — as with Dr. Phibes and others, Orion had switched out some music cues for earlier home video releases. The only extras are the original trailers, with Oblong's missing its narration track and Scream's confusing Marshall Jones for Peter Cushing. Subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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