Monday, January 19, 2015

Oval Portrait, The (1972)

... aka: Edgar Allan Poe's The Oval Portrait
... aka: El retrato ovalado

Directed by:
Rogelio A. González

Here's an odd little misfire: A low-budget Poe adaptation filmed South of the Border by the Mexican director of the macabre black comedy Skeleton of Mrs. Morales (1960) and featuring a cast of washed-up and sometimes horribly-dubbed former American film and TV stars as well as some little-known Canadian talent. A lot of things go horribly, horribly wrong in the process in this seldom-seen production, but we'll get to that here in a bit. Things open on a suitably gloomy note during dark and stormy night, when elderly and snooty Mrs. Buckingham (Doris Buckinham) and her middle-aged daughter Lisa (Wanda Hendrix) arrive at a spooky old family mansion. Why? Something about the old woman's brother dying not too long ago. I first assumed they came there for the funeral but the film does such a terrible job establishing the characters and plot in these early stages I had no clue who they were, what they were doing there or just what in the hell was going on. Thankfully, this at least eventually does start making a little sense... after about forty-five minutes!

While exiting their stagecoach, Lisa immediately sees a ghost that quickly disappears and from then on becomes paranoid about the home being haunted. She becomes especially weary of an oval portrait hanging in the living room. The portrait's subject, Rebecca (Maray Ayres), apparently died there not too long ago. Their first night there, Lisa goes downstairs to investigate some late night piano playing only to find the manic Joseph Hudson (Barry Coe) confessing his love to a woman who ends up running out the door before Lisa can identify her. Lisa then becomes obsessed with the dead Rebecca. She puts on her clothes, which pisses off Joseph to the point where he starts trying to rip them off of her, hears strange noises and sees a chandelier shake before a phantom enters into her body and possesses her. She confides to housekeeper Mrs. Warren (Gisele MacKenzie) in her monotone voice: "I am going to die very soon." Mrs. Warren then explains what happened to Rebecca and why her spirit may not be at peace.

So what did happen? Well, a year or so earlier while the Civil War was underway, wounded enemy soldier Joseph broke into the home, was discovered and then secretly nursed back to health by both Rebecca and Mrs. Warren. Rebecca's father, army Major Alexander Huntington, was a man so consumed with bitterness and anger over his "worthless tramp" wife leaving him for another man he directed his frustrations right at his only child, threatening "If I ever find you with a man, I'll kill him!" Little does he know, but his daughter and the soldier - who's been hiding out in Mrs. Warren's bedroom all this time - have fallen in love. While the Major is away at war, Joseph and Rebecca attempt to get married but the wedding is crashed by soldiers who apprehend him and drag him off to prison. A pregnant Rebecca is then thrown out of the house when her irate father returns home, loses the baby and kills herself. The father becomes catatonic and is hauled off to an asylum, leaving Mrs. Warren as the only sane one left to tell the sorry tale.

After this extremely long flashback, which eats up over 40 minutes (!) of screen time, we return to the home in present day where several horrific (so to speak) twists are about to unfold. The deceased major's attorney Mr. Ashcroft shows up, along with cousins Regina and Peter, for the reading of the will and everyone gets there just in time to see levitating candles, Lisa in the throes of possession and Rebecca's restless spirit fluttering about. The film then abruptly cuts to the following day when everyone except for Mrs. Warren (who ended up inheriting the home) and Joseph, is leaving. Lisa, introduced as a protagonist at the beginning, is suddenly A-OK and simply disappears from the rest of the film with a smile on her face. But never fear, the director has one more twisted trick up his sleeve centering around grave digging and necrophilia. I guess that's what happens when one attempts to adapt a short story that's not even two pages long.

Cut-rate Gothic horror and corny Harlequin Romance-style star-crossed lovers melodrama butt heads and, surprisingly enough, the latter actually works better than the former. Among the film's many problems are ultra-slow pacing, poor editing, overuse of zoom shots and an unfocused screenplay that ends up spending all of its time telling us a ghost / possession / haunting story that has no bearing whatsoever on how the film actually ends. It also happens to take place in the least-sinister-looking and most brightly-lit home of all time, giving this the feel of an afternoon TV special with its cheap and barely dressed sets, blank white walls and overbearing lighting. Top-billed "star" Hendrix comes off nothing short of embarrassing here. Not only is she horribly miscast in a role more suited to an actress half her age but she's also the victim of the film's worst dub. It's no wonder she threw in the towel on her acting career right after appearing in this! MacKenzie, on the other hand, gives a surprisingly strong and affecting performance under the circumstances. While that's greatly appreciated, few are going to want to suffer through an otherwise sub-par movie in order to see it.

Currently on IMDb, the credits for this film and the credits for One Minute Before Death (1972) have been merged into one entry. Though these were made by the same crew, featured most of the same actors and were both based on Poe, they are in fact two entirely different movies that were filmed at the same time. Oval was released several times on video during the 80s and has also been well-served in the DVD era with numerous releases. It's part of several of those cheap Mill Creek 50 movie sets and was also released by Alternative Cinema, who've paired it with the much-better Poe adaptation THE TELL-TALE HEART (1960), and East West Entertainment, who've paired it with Michele Soavi's superior THE DEVIL'S DAUGHTER / La setta (1991).

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