AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD: NOW, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 85 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Waldo Trumball is an unscrupulous undertaker who, with his assistant Felix Gillie, likes to re-use the coffins of the people they are supposed to bury to save money. Also a part of the household are old, and rather deaf, Mr. Hinchley, who originally started the business, and the beautiful Amaryllis, Trumbull’s neglected wife and Hinchley’s daughter, with whom Gillie is in love. When customers begin to become scarce and money-grubbing landlord Mr. Black begins demanding his unpaid rent, Trumbull decides that a bit of murder might be in order….
For years I thought that The Comedy Of Terrors was a Roger Corman production. An easy mistake to make I suppose, considering that it utilised much of the crew behind such films as The Pit And The Pendulum and The Masque Of The Red Death [perhaps the finest of the Corman/Poe pictures] and had some of the same cast members as Corman’s The Raven, made just before this film. The Comedy Of Terrors was also one of those films that I’d often managed to catch a bit of [o the days when pretty much every week there would be an old Vincent Price or Christopher Lee horror movie on TV, and this was back when we in the UK only had four, or dare I say three – showing my age now – channels] but never seen in full. That probably explains why I didn’t used to think much highly of it. In fact, it’s a pretty horror spoof that is possibly even better than The Raven, though I probably say this in part because its devilish, ghoulish but actually quite inoffensive humour is very close to my own sense of humour. I guess that those of us who laugh at stuff involving dead bodies and murders are dealing with our own fears. Think of The Body Snatcher, or any of the other Burke and Hare movies, mix it with elements of the Corman/Poe pictures, especially Tales Of Terror, and you pretty much have The Comedy Of Terrors.
It was made by Corman’s studio American International Pictures, and the screenwriter was Richard Matheson, relishing the opportunity to mock his writing for the Corman/Poe films, but the director was Jacques Tourneur, a master of subtle horror and the maker of a number of classics in the genre, most notably the superb Night Of The Demon, as well as one of the greatest film noirs Out Of The Past. It was clearly intended as a follow-up The Raven, carrying over some of its stars, though Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone swapped parts because Karloff had serious back and leg problems and therefore had to play the less physical of the two roles. Tourneur didn’t allow his actors as much freedom as Corman did, something which especially hurt the improvisation-loving Lorre, though he was actually really ill when he made this film, mainly from addiction to morphine and vitamins, and he died soon after. Though the film is very funny, Lorre looking so poor throughout does dampen the chuckles a little. Tourneur also slightly Matheson’s original ending so that two more characters survived the climactic carnage. The Comedy Of Terrors was neither a hit nor a failure at the box office, nixing Matheson’s plans to write a follow-up film for AIP called Sweethearts and Horrors, which was intended to reunite Karloff, Rathbone and Lorre and add Tallulah Bankhead.
I must say, having enjoyed them together so much in the [recently reviewed by Yours Truly] The Raven, it was seeing Vincent Price and Peter Lorre together again that I immediately found so appealing about this film, which takes their double act even further and turns it into a variation on Laurel and Hardy [Price even says a version of the famous: “That’s another fine mess….” line]. Though once again Price is more the straight man [if you don’t get much out of the film, and comedy is an acquired taste, you should at least enjoy spotting Lorre’s stunt double during the large amount of climbing, rolling and falling his character does], he and Lorre virtually swap the parts that they played in The Black Cat instalment from Tales Of Terror, and with the same actress Joyce Jameson playing the woman caught in the middle, though here playing a supposed opera singing whose wailing causes glasses to shatter and flowers to wilt. This time Price is the neglective, murderous husband who is constantly drinking [and what a great drunk he makes], while Lorre, while now playing Price’s down-trodden assistant rather than a champion wine taster, is the one who loves Price’s wife. Price really is hammy here, but it’s very much in keeping with his part [though he doesn’t attempt much of the sadistic edge Lorre brought to the role in the Corman picture] and he really shows how adept he was at comedy, while Lorre is allowed to exhibit that odd sweetness he was occasionally allowed to do . And yes, there’s a cat [the same one that was in Breakfast At Tiffany’s and The Incredible Shrinking Man], who plays no part in the plot but who is usually present and is a witness to most of the ghastly acts in the film.
Despite the employment of Corman favourites Daniel Heller [sets] and Floyd Crosby [cinematography], Corman, who was often coming up with interesting compositions which Tourneur’s liking of faster cutting was less likely to result in, may well have probably made the proceedings more visually impressive if he had directed The Comedy Of Terrors, a film where I do sometimes sense the unease of its director, but after watching some of the Corman/Poe films in quick succession it’s also nice to have some lengthier outdoor shots and no re-use use of the usual locations and stock shots, though some thinly disguised sets still look rather familiar. In any case, Tourneur does pace his film more evenly than Corman tended to do with this kind of film [slow first two thirds, very rapid final third], and allows the humour to flourish in more even doses. While there’s still much slapstick and simple humour a five year old will enjoy – the first sequence of Price and Lorre breaking into a house to murder the owner is a marvellously sustained set-piece with Lorre continuously annoying Price with his clumsiness and unintentional causing of noise climaxing with him accidently destroying a load of busts adorning a staircase – there’s a darker, more realistic and, I guess, more adult, edge to much of The Comedy Of Terrors, though you can almost feel Matheson’s delight in spoofing things such as burial alive and Price talking to a raven. A few things don’t quite work , like some speeded up footage in the opening, and the lack of a consistent tone, in particular the switching from English-style gallows humour to pratfalls, makes more for a slightly uneven piece, but it’s never dull for a moment,and the constantly used device of having its frankly low-rent characters spout sophisticated verbiage does work very well.
The most side-splitting material involves Rathbone, playing a cataleptic prone to reciting Macbeth. “I’ve never had such an uncooperative customer in my whole life”: utters Price because Rathbone just won’t say dead. While Boris Karloff, despite being badly ill, is clearly enjoying himself sitting at a dinner table [do I sense the ancestry of the decrepit but, let’s face it, very funny Grandfather in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre here?] going on about how certain historical personalities were buried and complaining that his daughter keeps preventing him from having his ‘medicine’ [which is actually poison with which Price is trying to kill him with], Basil Rathbone is simply having a ball in this film, and has a death scene which manages the difficult task of being both touching and funny, and is probably his last great scene of acting [though he appeared in a few films after The Comedy Of Terrors], almost serving as his epitaph. Then there’s Joe E. Brown’s amusing but also frankly bizarre final screen appearance.
Corman’s usual composer Les Baxter relishes the chance to write an almost wholly comedic score, though it’s a bit intrusive. Despite occasional missteps, The Comedy Of Terrors is mostly a joy to watch, especially concerning its performances, and makes one lament that this kind of thing is rarely done now. Yes, it melds horror with humour, something constantly being done but not always very well, but despite the deaths and bodies there’s a gentleness and a quaintness to it that I certainly miss in movie comedy today. Arrow Video’s Blu-ray comes with the usual fine selection of special features [a lengthy old TV interview of Vincent Price is a real treat], especially for a film that’s certainly been overshadowed by others, and the picture, while looking just a tad more worn than Arrow’s Corman/Poe releases, is still very sharp and natural looking.
* High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of the feature, transferred from original film elements by MGM
* Original Mono 2.0 audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray)
* Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
* Audio Commentary with Price historian David Del Valle
* Extensive archive interview with Vincent Price
* Whispering in Distant Chambers: The Nightfall of Jacques Tourneur – a specially-commissioned video essay by David Cairns, which charts the career of director Tourneur
* Richard Matheson Storyteller – an archive featurette on The Comedy of Terrors writer
* Original Theatrical Trailer
* Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Paul Shipper
* Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Chris Fujiwara, author of Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, illustrated with original archive stills and posters.