Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.
There are times when you find one of those movies that just begs to be watched. The Comedy of Terrors was like that for me. I didn’t expect this to be a great movie or something that I would want to rush out and find a copy of for myself, but based on the cast and crew, I went into this with some expectations. The Comedy of Terrors was directed by the great Jacques Tourneur based on a script by no less a luminary than Richard Matheson. Our cast includes such horror luminaries as Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, and Boris Karloff. Knowing all of this, how could a self-respecting movie nerd/horror geek not want to spend roughly an hour and a half in front of the screen?
For a film that promises “terror,” though, The Comedy of Terrors doesn’t really deliver. Then again, it also doesn’t really try to deliver. This is a comedy film with horror movie trappings, and that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. All of the characters are broad stereotypes, the situations are ridiculous, and it doesn’t really matter, because no one is really going into this film expecting to be scared.
Waldo Trumbull (Vincent Price) is an undertaker in a small New England town at some point in the 19th century. He has very few scruples in his job, no longer embalming his “customers” and dumping them out of the coffin into the ground so that the coffin can be reused. Despite his cost-cutting measures, business is bad. Trumbull hasn’t paid rent in a year, and his landlord Black (Basil Rathbone) is demanding full payment or Trumbull and his business will be evicted.
Trumbull is partnered with an elderly man named Hinchley (Boris Karloff), who is deaf and generally confused. Trumbull would like him out of the way, and there is a recurring joke about Trumbull trying to poison the old man. To cement the partnership, Trumbull married Hinchley’s daughter Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson). Neither of them are happy with the marriage. Trumbull is verbally and emotionally abusive while Amaryllis complains that she gave up her dream of singing in the opera to be married. Her dream is of the pipe variety; she can’t carry a tune despite her singing at every opportunity. The last member of the household is Trumbull’s assistant Felix Gillie (Peter Lorre), an escaped convict who is not-so-secretly in love with Amaryllis.
Without current customers, Trumbull decides that his best course of action is to create some. He and Gillie go out to make a corpse or two to keep the business afloat, and Trumbull manages to kill off an old man who has a young, attractive wife. This backfires when the new widow, instead of paying for the funeral, runs away with all of the money to live in Europe. With Black demanding payment in full, Trumbull’s next victim becomes an obvious one; however, Black has a strange medical condition that drops him into a cataleptic trance that closely mimics death.
So, you can see where this is heading. Black will be “killed” a few times and will always prove to simply have been in a trance. Everyone will fight with everyone else and Trumbull tries to think up new schemes to put the business back on a paying basis. He’ll yell at his wife, who will be comforted by Gillie. And on and on it goes until it ends.
There are moments here that are genuinely funny. This is also a film that could have handled some tighter editing. Some sequences simply go on too long and stop being funny long before then actually end. Similarly, there are a couple of “action” sequences that feature obviously sped-up film, a technique that I think is always patently obvious and rarely that effective outside of Three Stooges shorts.
The Comedy of Terrors is one of those rare films that manages to be forced camp and still works. Make no mistake here—this is absolutely camp. All of the actors here are over the top, and some of that still works. Basil Rathbone is the guiltiest of this, but I’m certain that this was a part of what was intended. Mr. Black, we learn, has a deep love for Macbeth. In fact, a great deal of his dialogue is straight out of the play to the point where I’m mildly surprised that Shakespeare wasn’t given partial writing credit.
So, ultimately, this is a goofy film, but it never pretends to be anything more than it is. It’s goofy. It’s silly. Vincent Price chews a lot of scenery. Peter Lorre often gets the best lines as sotto voce asides to the audience. This probably won’t be anyone’s favorite movie, but it is one of those rare films that could honestly work for just about any viewer.
Why to watch The Comedy of Terrors: It really is funny.
Why not to watch: There are moments of silliness that haven’t aged well.