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Comedy of Terrors , The

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Arrow Video
Dual Format BD/DVD
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Jacques Tourneur
Vincent Price
Peter Lorre
Boris Karloff
Basil Rathbone
Joyce Jameson
Bottom Line: 
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The 1963 AIP comedy horror film “The Raven” had been Roger Corman’s attempt to ring the changes on the hugely successful series of Poe films he’d first instigated with “House of Usher” a few years before in 1960. After replicating and expanding on the box office of that first film with their version of “Pit and the Pendulum” (1961) and its non-Vincent Price-starring follow up “The Premature Burial” (1962), Corman and regular series writer Richard Matheson were already beginning to feel the formula had run its course and had become too rigid in its on-screen application; it seemed that they had used up all the themes most strongly associated with Poe’s literature in their previous highly unorthodox adaptations of his best known works. “Tales of Terror” had seen the two attempt to shake things up with a portmanteau movie based on three of the author’s best short stories, but it was the middle segment of this trio that gave Corman the idea of looking to comedy as a way of extending the Poe franchise even further, that way also giving him-self something new to explore in the films beyond repeating the same stale Gothic formula.

“The Black Cat” had paired up AIP’s contract horror star Vincent Price with the ailing German Hollywood veteran Peter Lorre, uncovering in the process an unexpected rapport between the two actors that resulted in a natural comic chemistry based on Price’s lip-smacking, face-pulling excesses and Lorre’s love of improvisation and clowning. In “The Raven” Corman brought the two together again and threw in Boris Karloff as a sinister villain to reunite ‘the triumvirate of terror’ for a film that had almost nothing to do with Poe’s famous poem after its satirisation in the opening few minutes of the picture. Instead, the movie embraced comedy and spectacle wholeheartedly, and the combination of Karloff’s relish for his villainous role, Price and Lorre’s joyous slapstick interplay, and Matheson’s gift for macabre humour along with the deadpan dialogue showcased by his wholly original comic screenplay resulted in yet another huge hit for the seemingly unstoppable Corman.

The director-producer’s next move was to attempt to leave Poe behind him for a while with his adaption of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”. But AIP had other ideas. While Corman worked on the film that eventually became the faux Poe picture “The Haunted Palace”, Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson sensed that there was more to be made of the comedy angle so successfully exploited by “The Raven”. That film had proved to be so unusually lucrative that Matheson was brought in as an associate producer along with staff AIP editor and producer Anthony Carras, to help oversee yet another comedy extravaganza in “The Raven” mould. Again written by Matheson, and starring not only Price, Lorre and Karloff but also the seventy-two-year-old Basil Rathbone, who’d also not long ago starred alongside Price in Corman’s “Tales of Terror” during the non-comedy segment “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”, “The Comedy of Terrors” looks virtually inextinguishable from one of Corman’s own films of the period, with AIP making sure everyone involved in defining the stylistic traits of Corman’s Poe cycle of pictures – cinematographer Floyd Crosby, art director Daniel Haller, composer Les Baxter and costume designer Marjorie Corso --  were assembled for this film. In fact, everyone who had been a core member of Corman’s team on the Poe films up until this point, was also to be found working on this one too – everyone, that is, except for Corman himself!

In the absence of Roger Corman, Matheson was also allowed to choose the director he’d prefer to shoot his mordantly biting comic screenplay, which replaced the terror writings of Edgar Allan Poe with the tragedies of William Shakespeare as a hook on which Matheson got to hang his graveside comic manner. Jacques Tourneur, the Paris-born son of French silent movie director Maurice Tourneur, had been one of the great Hollywood filmmakers during the 1940s, specialising in low budget horror at RKO Studios through his association with visionary producer Val Lewton, and bleak film noir and wartime thrillers where his aptitude for shadow-laden imagery came into its own. However by 1963 his career was languishing in the backwaters of U.S. television, where he’d found himself churning out in fast turnaround episode after episode of shows such as “Bonanza” and “The Barbara Stanwyck Show”. His exemplary work on a Richard Matheson scripted episode of “The Twilight Zone” made his name an easy sell to AIP when Matheson suggested it for “The Comedy of Terrors”, although AIP were always just as happy accommodating the talents of struggling veterans like Tourneur, facing up to the twilight of their careers, as they were up-and-coming newbies looking for their first break in the industry … it made little difference to them just so long as they weren’t asking for too much money.

“The Comedy of Terrors” has a lot on paper going for it: the opening scene establishes the familiar winning mixture of Matheson’s cynical, dry humour and Vincent Price and Peter Lorre’s penchant for ridiculous tomfoolery when it introduces the duo, this time playing down-at-heel Victorian undertakers in New England, so poor that they only have the one decent-looking coffin between them to provision for the burial of their clients’ loved ones. They slyly reuse the same coffin for every service, waiting until the mourners have departed the graveside so that they can empty its contents unadorned into the grave then surreptitiously make a quick getaway with the now empty casket in the back of their coach-and-horses hearse!

 Filmed on the graveyard set of “The Haunted Palace” (which Roger Corman also reused on “The Terror”), this opening vignette resorts to under-cranking the camera for comic effect as the couple speedily fill in the grave before their ruse can be discovered; but in combination with the dark, hard-faced fact of what their business actually entails (a transgressive reminder of what the prettified funerary rites are actually disguising made flesh when the stiff white corpse inside the coffin is shown unceremoniously being tumbled into its dirt hole in the ground) it makes for a perfect summery of everything that works best in Matheson’s script for this film: juxtaposing the syrupy sentimentalism wheeled out to disguise the finality of death with a vivid depiction of its crude reality -- even if that reality appears often as the accompaniment to some blackly comic knock-about japery.

Also re-joining Price and Lorre for this jamboree of deadpan chuckles is the comic actress and great beauty of the day Joyce Jameson, who’d been typecast in cheesecake glamorous roles since her breakout appearance in Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment”, but had also proved a perfect adornment to the Price/Lorre double act in “The Black Cat” segment of “Tales of Terror” where she played the unfaithful wife of Peter Lorre’s alcoholic lush Montresor Herringbone, paying the price for her dalliance with Vincent Price’s foppish wine tasting suitor. For this film the roles are reversed: she’s married instead to Vincent Price’s drunkard undertaker Waldo Trumbull, a misogynist who can barely speak a sentence that isn’t an excoriating put down of his wife Amaryllis, herself a would-be opera singer whose grating voice causes mini earthquakes and smashed glasses whenever she lets rip (although tone death Mr Gillie adores her, and thinks she has the voice of an angel). Trumbull has taken on co-ownership of the family undertaking business, once run by Amaryllis’s ageing father Amos Hinchley (Boris Karloff). But Waldo now spends most of his time -- when not verbally abusing his wife -- attempting to add poison to the old man’s milky tea. Peter Lorre plays Felix Gillie, an ex-bank robber who is forced to assist Trumbull on threat of being exposed to the authorities for past crimes, and soon finds himself in a fix when Trumbull requires him to help out in a dastardly plot to murder a rich local businessman whose widow he then plans to charge for Hinchley and Trumbull’s funerary services! 

Waldo owes his penny-pinching landlord Mr Black (Basil Rathbone) a years’ worth of back rent and comes up with this evil scheme to avoid being turfed out of the family home. When their initial plans go awry (their first victim’s widow runs off with all her husband’s cash and doesn’t stay around long enough to pay for the funeral) Waldo Trumbull hits on the obvious solution to his problems and decides to murder Mr Black instead! However, the couple are unaware that the Shakespeare-obsessed John F. Black, Esq. suffers from a rare form of death-mimicking catalepsy (a plot point clearly ripped from the Poe films), a fact which paves the way for all manner of unexpected complications later in the film.

There is plenty here to enjoy for anyone who found “The Raven” acceptable as comedy entertainment: Matheson’s comic dialogue is as sharp as a tack. Indeed, this might just be his best screenplay when it comes to assessing the level of the banter struck between Price, Lorre, Jameson and Karloff as they feud and bicker in the family home which uses a dank cellar as the base of operations for the family's funerary business. Both Price as the foul Waldo Trumbull and Rathbone as his nemesis, the “Macbeth”-quoting Mr Black, are on top form here, Price relishing his turn to play over-the-top comic evil just as Karloff had done in the previous pairing. Matheson is happily taking the piss of the Corman cycle when, for instance, quoting Vincent Price’s delivery of the line ‘what place is this?’ from “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” during “Tales of Terror”, making a recurring joke of its repetition.   Rathbone, Karloff and Price had all appeared on-screen together as far back as 1939 for the Universal Studios production of Rowland V. Lee’s horror movie version of the founding of Tudor history that was “Tower of London”, but it is Rathbone who comes close to stealing the show from Price this time out with his energetic performance as the eccentric landlord who won’t stay dead, no matter what Trumbull and Gillie throw at him.

 Jacques Tourneur’s approach to direction is very different here to Corman’s, and seemingly much influenced by his recent stint in television. Although there are echoes discernible of his old interest in the kinds of visual atmosphere he had been still able to deliver as recently as 1957 for the British horror film “Night of the Demon”, with this film Tourneur deals in a quick-cutting perfunctory style, more pragmatically aimed at facilitating the physical comedy that much of the film’s humour is dependent on. But this brings us to the main problematic aspects of this entire venture. The logic of bringing Price, Lorre, Karloff and Rathbone together for the ultimate old school horror experience, in a Matheson script aimed at replicating the tart, devilish humour of Britain’s Ealing Studios at its height while capitalising on the already tried and tested rapport between the male stars and female lead Joyce Jameson, seems unassailable in theory, but the reality of it falls flat against the harsh fact of the failing health of several of the film’s main stars. Compare the still comparatively sprightly Boris Karloff who appears in “The Raven” with the minimal contributions he makes in “The Comedy of Terrors” and one can see well enough how the actor’s arthritis problems had worsened considerably between the two productions, enough in fact for Karloff to have to swap roles with Rathbone since the part of Mr Black he’d originally been cast in required a much more physical performance than Karloff was able to give by this time. Consequently, he has only a cursory amount of screen time as the elderly Mr Hinchley. Even worse than Karloff was Peter Lorre’s state of ill health; he died of a stroke only three months after completing the picture, and was no longer able physically to perform during the shoot the pratfalls and physical clowning the role of Felix Gillie largely depended on. Joyce Jameson later recalled the sheer physical effort it required of him to be able to perform the few dance steps they have to carry out together at one point in the film. Thus, the sad fact is that all of Lorre’s physical comedy is being performed by a body double wearing an utterly weird Peter Lorre rubber mask! Once you spot this, it’s hard to look away and it’s a total distraction from the celebration of old school talent this should have been. The fact that the end credits play out next to shots of the cast framed in funeral wreaths of flowers couldn’t, in retrospect, have been more apposite.

Even more obvious is how the screenplay attempts to compensate for the fact that Karloff and Lorre’s performances are absent through much of the movie in all but their brute physical presence. It means that Joyce Jameson gets far more of an opportunity to shine than she perhaps would have done otherwise, and some of the most noteworthy scenes are ones that involve her, such as her verbal sparring with Vincent Price and her deliberately excruciating performance of the hymnal ‘He is not Dead, but Sleepeth” during Mr Black’s funerary service. Other comic tactics seem rather more desperate, though: the name Joe E. Brown probably means very little to most of the people likely to be buying and viewing this release today, although he was a well-known American comedy performer in his time (he also appeared alongside Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like it Hot”). He appears briefly here in a cameo as a cemetery keeper in a scene that exploits his trademark gaping grin. Most of the film’s other comedy business is supplied by Tourneur’s casting of Rhubarb the Cat, one of the most famous cats in Hollywood having appeared by this point alongside Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and having menaced the shrunken Grant Williams  in “The Incredible Shrinking Man” (also scripted by Richard Matheson). Playing Amaryllis’ pet cat Cleopatra in this film, Rhubarb gets higher billing than Basil Rathbone, and almost as much screen time!

Although “The Comedy of Terrors” is an inessential addition to the AIP roster of Vincent Price horror films, it looks and feels like a Poe picture and there are some memorable moments dotted throughout it that make it worth persevering with, especially if you are a big fan of this period’s AIP horror output. The HD transfer for this release, made available to Arrow Video via MGM Hollywood Classics, is not quite as impressive as those which had previously been struck for the films included on the recent “Six Gothic Tales” Price/Corman box set, despite coming from the same source. It seems likely that this one hasn’t been given the extra level of attention and supervision of Arrow Video courtesy of Deluxe Restoration, thus accounting for the extra speckling and occasional print damage which is discernible far more often here than it was on that other collection of releases. But that’s probably a good indication of this film’s much lower status when compared to its Corman-directed partners.

When it comes to the disc extras Arrow Video have been their usual generous selves, though: The film is included as part of a 2-disc dual format edition featuring both region B Blu-ray and region 2 DVD discs. Original mono 2.0 audio in appropriate formats for BD and DVD, and optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing are included. Film historian and Vincent Price biographer David Del Valle is joined by “Puppet Master” filmmaker and modern day Corman-style genre director David DeCoteau to provide an entertaining audio commentary for the film which benefits from Del Valle having known many of the cast members. He interviewed Vincent Price in 1987 for a career overview that was released on video under the title “The Sinister Image” in 2002. An alternative 52 minute cut of that interview is included on this disc under the title “Vincent Price: My Life and Crimes,” which takes most of the highpoints in the actors screen career and features anecdotes about the making of each one. The films discussed are “Tower of London” (1939), “The Invisible Man Returns” (1940), “Laura”(1944), “House of Wax” (1953), “The Tingler” (1959), “The House on Haunted Hill” (1959), “The Fly” (1958), “The Bat” (1959), “House of Usher” (1960) and the rest of the Poe Cycle, “The Last Man on Earth”(1964), “The Witchfinder General” (1969), “Cry of the Banshee” (1970), “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” (1971) and “Theatre of Blood” (1973). Price describes Robert Fuest as ‘one of the best directors I ever worked with in my life,’ and says of the two Phibes films: ‘these were mad films, but he [Bob Fuest] was a mad man!’ The interview will also be of particular interest to “Theatre of Blood” fans as it includes black-and-white location footage recorded during the making of that much-loved cult classic.

Also on the disc is a ten minute interview with Richard Matheson (“Storyteller”) in which the screenwriter talks about working with Jacques Tourneur and the proposed sequel he had planned to make called “Sweethearts and Horrors”. It was shelved as “The Comedy of Terrors” was not a big box office success, although it still made money. As Matheson points out in the interview, AIP didn’t spend enough money on these films for them not to make money!

“Whispers in Distant Chambers – The Nightfall of Jacques Tourneur” is a nicely put together video essay by David Cairns on the career of director Jacques Tourneur which rounds off this disc along with a theatrical trailer for the film. The 2-disc set’s packaging includes a reversible sleeve featuring new and original cover art, plus the obligatory free booklet, this one presenting Chris Fujiwara’s essay on Jacques Tourneur’s career and his involvement with this film.

Again, this may be a lesser entry in AIP’s 1960s Vincent Price catalogue, but Arrow have made sure that their release of it is just as essential a purchase as we’ve grown accustomed to expect from them.


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