The Comedy of Terrors, 1963.
Directed by Jacques Tourneur.
Starring Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, Joyce Jameson, Beverly Hills and Alan DeWitt.
A scheming undertaker resorts to extreme measures to bring in some new business in order to pay his rent.
Both comedy and terror are two of the hardest genres to get right and combining the two successfully is even harder, so calling your film The Comedy of Terrors is going to give it a lot to live up to right from the off. Luckily the opening scene of a misty graveyard playing host to a funeral as several mourners look on sets the scene perfectly as once the service is over and the mourners depart, undertaker Waldo Trumbull (Vincent Price – The Fall of the House of Usher) and his assistant Felix Gillie (Peter Lorre – Casablanca) give each other a nod and they’re off to work, tipping the corpse into the grave and covering it over as they only have one coffin and will need it for the next job.
That’s because Trumbull is broke. He runs a funeral business started by his now-senile father-in-law Mr. Hinchley (Boris Karloff – Frankenstein) and hasn’t had a paying client for months, which brings about a visit from his landlord John Black (Basil Rathbone – Son of Frankenstein) demanding the back-rent that Trumbull owes. Given 24 hours to pay the money owed, Trumbull resorts to desperate measures to provide some fresh new business.
Which may make Trumbull out to be a desperate man trying to keep himself and his family afloat but don’t be fooled – Trumbull is an abusive drunk who hates his wife Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson – Tales of Terror), tries to poison Hinchley at every opportunity so the business will be completely his and bullies Gillie into doing things against his will. And Vincent Price is magnificent as he plays the dastardly chancer, switching from slurring drunk to razor-sharp schemer with the ease of an actor who can play these types of roles in his sleep. His scenes with the put-upon Peter Lorre are fantastic and it’s quite easy to imagine these two appearing in some sort of macabre sketch show going from one slapstick situation to the next.
Although Price is the focal point and Lorre his foil it is the supporting cast of Boris Karloff, Joyce Jameson and Basil Rathbone that gives the film an air of sitcom. Putting the terror into The Comedy of Terrors is relatively simple when you have a cast that features Price, Lorre, Karloff and Rathbone all together in a plot that involves an undertaker, a debt and murder, but the comedy element is the more difficult sell. Fortunately the humour works extremely well and, when combined with composer Les Baxter’s lighthearted and whimsical musical cues, gives the film a jaunty pace that the various actors play up to, with Karloff and Jameson displaying some expert comic timing opposite Price, especially in the scenes around the kitchen table. When we are first introduced to Amaryllis she is having a spiteful row with her husband as her elderly father is slumped in his chair and Gillie is working in the basement underneath, and Price and Jameson ham it up as if they were in front of a theatre audience; Price especially has to throw some big words into the mix seemingly off-the-cuff and pulls it off spectacularly. However, it is Basil Rathbone who gives Price a run for his money as John F. Black, the landlord who wants what is owed to him and spends a lot of his time quoting lines from Macbeth. It’s an odd character trait but it ties in with the Shakespearean nature of the script and Rathbone pitches his character’s absurd line delivery perfectly. Interestingly, Basil Rathbone was originally cast to play Mr. Hinchley and Boris Karloff was set to play Mr. Black but due to Karloff’s arthritis and the somewhat athletic performance needed for Black the roles were reversed, perhaps for the best given the end result.
The film itself is probably the least polished of all of the recent Vincent Price releases from Arrow Video, the picture containing a few pops and crackles, although it all adds to the charm and the strong colours and overall clarity is still very good. The disc also comes with a 51-minute TV spot from 1987 featuring Vincent Price discussing his career with historian David Del Valle, an interview with writer Richard Matheson and a video essay about the career of director Jacques Tourneur so there’s plenty of material for fans to trawl through, but overall The Comedy of Terrors may not be a classic when compared to its main cast members’ more celebrated works but it is a fun ride through the cemetery with four bona fide horror legends as your guides.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★