Macabre terror has been a staple of cinema since at least the Fifties. Hammer Films practically invented it after the initial horror successes at Universal Pictures in the 1930’s and 40’s. Macabre comedy, however, is still something of a rare breed. While people mistake it for black comedy, macabre comedy involves the process in which a horror story unfolds with moments of levity and sick humour. American International Pictures decided to follow up their horror title Tales of Terror with a comedy film titled Comedy of Terrors in 1963. A dark piece of comedy, it managed to attract a decent director, a then up and coming writer who was redefining TV with the Twilight Zone and a cast of classic horror actors to make, if not an out and out farce then at least, a quirky comedy that has more in common with Carry On Screaming! and Young Frankenstein than its more contemporary fellow examples in the genre.
Waldo Trumbull (Vincent Price) is a cranky and bitter undertaker and funeral home director who is running his father in law’s (Boris Karloff) former business. He got this job by marrying Mr. Hinchley’s daughter, Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson). Business is terrible and life under Mr. Trumbull is awful, particularly for his assistant, Mr Felix Gillie (Peter Lorre). Along with the daily grind, Waldo and Felix supplement the meagre income by coming up with a somewhat ingenious plan: finding rich, elderly homeowners, Waldo or Felix kill said person and wait nearby for the inevitable scream. Then, after proclaiming the sad news that indeed this good person is dead, Hinchley and Trumbull Undertakers are there to help prepare and bury the unfortunate person. For a small fee, of course. There are other angles that Trumbull exploits in the film with the dead people but that would spoil too much. On top of that, Trumbull has just been informed by the owner to the undertaker property (which he and the rest of the above cast reside), Mr. John F. Black Esq. (Basil Rathbone) that if one years’ back rent is not paid in twenty-four hours, they will be evicted.
I think the problem at the time the film was released was that on first inspection, the film isn’t very funny. It has moments of levity, some smutty humour and a talent for ridiculous scenarios. But actual moments of laughter are hard to come by. So for audiences of the 1960’s, I suppose they had fun but not much else. For you see, Comedy of Terrors has more in common in the farce comedies of the 1970’s and 80’s than its own time nor the “comedies” of the 90’s and 2000’s. Where Comedy shines is the razor sharp delivery of Vincent Price and Boris Karloff and in the ludicrous antics of Price, Lorre and Basil Rathbone. There’s something marvelous in the way Price just spits nasty comments at his wife, his assistant and anybody he considers lower than himself and when they come back with a retort, he has another comment to fire back. You see him going to work on each person, figuring out their weakness and preying on that. On top of that, he has this talent of decrying immorality in other people while he conducts himself in a worse fashion at the same time. Yet he always manages to make himself look innocent with every proclamation. Karloff is amazing as the doddery old Grandad who can’t hear anything said to him, doesn’t notice Waldo trying to poison him over and over again, demolishes funeral service speeches and can’t see his daughter is trying to look out for him against her treacherous husband. Lorre is good but only after the second half of the film passes. Before that he kind of comes across as a simpleton against the more intellectual Trumbull. After Trumbull’s latest plan spirals into more murder and more breaking and entering, Felix starts to develop a spine and we see more of his infatuation with Amaryllis. Honestly, it can’t be anything less than true love for him to listen to her singing and like it. She can shatter glass, pop corks out of bottles and send animals flying across the room in terror with that voice of hers. Oh well, love is blind. And soundproof it seems. Joyce Jameson wins major points for her ability to tag team with Lorre in their sparring with Price. At first, she just fends off Waldo’s advances to murder her father but starts really going at him for neglecting her and for putting her down. When she realises that Felix loves her, she goes to his defense when things look really dire. It’s interesting how in the middle of the Keystone Cops-esque chases around the house and the countryside, I found myself rooting for Felix and Amaryllis to, at least, get one over on Waldo.
For me, the highlight of the whole movie was Basil Rathbone. Appearing at the start as this stately, well mannered and heeled gentleman about town, when Waldo and Felix conspire to do away with their rent problem and get paid for a quick funeral, we see a totally different side to Mr. Black. From his insane imaginary chases around his house at night reciting Macbeth dressed in his pyjamas and dressing gown to his efforts to not being made dead by, primarily, Mr. Trumbull, Rathbone turns into this monster in the night, stalking through the Trumbull house seeking his imprisoners armed with a bloody axe and a knowledge of the famous Bard’s tale of murder most foul in Scotland. I swear I laughed every time it seemed like Mr. Black looked dead and then buried only to hear the often repeated line “What IS this place!?!” spring up from a blank screen.
The writing by future Star Trek and then Twilight Zone writer Richard Matheson is quite accomplished, when you consider that the film wasn’t a hit in the larger scene for AIP, with the film getting a kind of bitchy, post-modern sensibility in how the characters are constantly trying to get the better of each other in conversation. Or when while stalking around a victim’s house, Waldo comes across the nubile, sleeping young wife of his victim in another room. Price has this look on his face of “Oh, yes! Score!” and then takes another look and visually seems to say “Nah.”. I like how he’ll murder, lie, bury people alive and offer to kill his father in law but taking a woman against her will is beneath Waldo Trumbull. I’m shaking my head writing that last line. As well as that, Lorre constantly gets his head bitten off by Price everytime he refers to his boss as “Mr. Tremble”. Even when Trumbull insists Felix call him by his correct name’s pronunciation, you realise Felix IS saying it correctly, it’s just that Lorre’s accent is mangling the name. On top of that, his constant creeping around houses and rooftops at the angry insistence of Waldo means that we get some standard “Biff! Bop! Wallop!” sound effects as a stunt double for Lorre (The actor wasn’t very well and would die the year after) is sent flying along roof tiles and down stairs. For me, the film suffers when director Jacques Tourneur relies on these tricks rather than sticking with the rapid-fire banter of Price and Lorre. By all accounts, Tourneur didn’t end up liking the end product and overall had a miserable time making it. Sad when you consider how far ahead of the curve the film would end up being compared to later efforts by other writers and directors.
The film ends in an all out “murder the other guy as quick as possible” which we know will mean someone is going to get their comeuppance. When all is said and done, Comedy Of Terrors will appeal to people who like their comedy weird and acidic.
Arrow do their usual job with a commentary track, vintage interviews with Vincent Price and a great booklet to go with it telling even more of the backstory.
“Comedy of Terrors is a comedy that is funny in its situations presented and isn’t for people expecting a laugh riot. Adjust accordingly, and you should enjoy yourself.”
Review disc supplied by video label. Please consider supporting Capricorn Theater in our endeavours by purchasing the Arrow blu ray/DVD combo pack.