Jacques Tourneur, 1964
Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff
“Well, it’s better in the dark.”
“What is? Decapitation?”
A penny pinching, alcoholic undertaker, Waldo Trumbull, has been scamming his clients for years by reusing coffins. He verbally abuses his opera singing wife and has married her only to take over her father’s business. Her father is senile and doddering and Trumbull regularly tries to poison him. He is also abusive to his assistant, Felix Gillie, and is unaware that Gillie is secretly in love with his wife. The building’s landlord, Mr. Black, demands the long overdue rent from Trumbull and he and Gillie kill a client and later happen to show up on scene to get some business. After the widow absconds to Europe without paying a dime, Trumbull decides they only have one option left: to kill Mr. Black. Unfortunately for them, Mr. Black won’t stay dead.
The Comedy of Terrors was filmed at the same time that Roger Corman and Vincent Price were making a series of Edgar Allen Poe themed films for American International Pictures. Many of those personalities returned for this horror comedy, including Price, Peter Lorre (Tales of Terror, The Raven), Basil Rathbone (Tales of Terror), Boris Karloff (The Raven), screenwriter Richard Matheson, composer Les Baxter, and cinematographer Floyd Crosby.
Price is at his best here as Trumbull, basically anti-hero, delivering some truly amazing dialogue and insulting every other person in the cast at seemingly every opportunity. He and Lorre first appeared together in Tales of Terror, where they played similar, but opposite roles. In the “Black Cat” segment of that film, Lorre was the drunkard who neglected and abused his wife and Price wound up seducing her, but here they swap roles to great effect. Their comedic chemistry is excellent, particularly when paired with Rathbone (in a different segment of Tales of Terror with Price) and Karloff (who worked with both Price and Lorre on The Raven). Their height disparity is also regularly played up for comedic effect - Price was 6’4” and Lorre was a diminutive 5’3”.
In addition to the title, which is a play on Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, in case you were unfamiliar, the film’s numerous references to Shakespeare are particularly delightful considering that most of them surround Shakespearean actor Basil Rathbone. He is absolutely delightful, running about the set in a scarlet dressing gown, quoting Macbeth with gusto, and maniacally wielding a rapier (among other things), and easily holds his own alongside Price and Lorre. He nearly steals the film from Price and Lorre even though he isn’t given half as much screen time and is bizarrely billed lower than the cat.
Though Karloff is somewhat neglected, he’s a nice addition as Price’s ancient and senile father in law and has a few memorable scenes and definitely gets the last laugh. He was originally supposed to play Mr. Black, but due to his ill health and the physical nature of the role, had to switch with Rathbone. Joyce Jameson (The Apartment, Death Race 2000) manages to hold her own as the screeching Amaryllis Trumbull, though her sole gag is her awful singing, which gets a little tiresome.
While Jacques Tourneur didn’t make many comic films, he does an excellent job here, particularly with the series of scenes where Black is supposed to be dead but keeps waking up. In the hands of a less capable director or actors, this would get old fast, but instead just becomes more and more hilarious. Another example is a scene where Price and Lorre break into a home to claim their first victim. You can see the comic coming miles away (they knock over a series of busts on a staircase when they are trying to be quiet), but that doesn’t prevent it from being funny. Tourneur made some beautiful black and white films for RKO with producer Val Lewton (Cat People being the prime example) and surprisingly The Comedy of Terrors also looks wonderful, full of lush colors, elaborate sets, and some deft cinematography. He and Price would work together again on another film for AIP, City in the Sea aka War Gods of the Deep.
I honestly can’t say enough good things about The Comedy of Terrors and it is one of my favorite Vincent Price films and one of my favorite horror comedies. With a script from the wonderful Richard Matheson, a combination of physical gags, black comedy, Shakespeare, rapid fire dialogue, and a little horror, the result is one of the most enjoyable AIP films of the ‘60s. It is available on DVD alongside The Raven as part of MGM’s wonderful Midnite Movies series.