Synopsis: Four Masters of the Macabre star in this sinister and screamingly funny scare-fest! Waldo Trumbull (Vincent Price) is running his father-in-law’s (Boris Karloff) funeral home business…straight into the ground! Hounded by his landlord (Basil Rathbone), Trumbull and his assistant (Peter Lorre) devise a way to make death pay: by increasing their customer base through murder and burying the secrets to their success…body by body!
Comedy of Terrors 6.75
eyelights: Vincent Price. Boris Karloff. its macabre humour. its sets.
eyesores: its lack of sophistication. its limited laughs.
“I don’t think he’s quite dead enough to bury.”
After the success of Roger Corman’s ‘The Raven‘, it was natural for its producers to want more of it. And so it was that they brought Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre back for yet another horror-comedy: ‘The Comedy of Terrors’.
Released in 1964, the AIP-produced Jacques Tourneur motion picture was bolstered by Basil Rathbone, substituting for Karloff – who was no longer in decent enough shape for a lead role and wound up playing a more comedic, secondary part.
Set in the 19th century, its follows Waldo, an unscrupulous undertaker who’s fallen on hard times. Though he married into his spouse’s spry family business, he’s run it six feet deep into the ground due to his negligence and alcoholism.
So when his landlord demands overdue rent money that would put the final nail in their coffin-making operation, Waldo coerces Felix, his casket-maker (and a former convict), to help him dig up some new clients. It just might be the death of them.
‘The Comedy of Terrors’, which takes its name -and not much else- from William Shakespeare (instead of Edgar Allan Poe, as its predecessor did), is a broad comedy; it’s a motion picture rife with silly gags, slapstick, and cartoonish performances.
For example, in its first set piece, we are treated to Price and Lorre waiting patiently until the end of a funeral to retrieve their casket, then dump and bury the body in its final resting place – all in fast forward, to a silly Far West bar-room jingle.
I know, I know…
Though it seems destined to amuse only unsophisticated audiences (i.e. kooky kiddies or senile seniors), it mercifully offers a few inspired moments of macabre humour to perk up the proceedings; nothing brings laughs quite like murder.
A perfect example of this is how, in order to subdue his spouse, Waldo always threatens to poison her dad. Being a bit soft in the head, the old man is always disappointed that she won’t let him have his “medicine” (as Waldo gleefully refers to it).
It’s deliciously evil fun.
But it’s a subtle touch compared to some of the rest, like the frenetic third act, in which Waldo and Felix decide to dispense with their pesky landlord and cash in on his funeral in the process – only to discover that he just won’t stay down.
…no matter how many times they kill him!
This turns into a nearly-slapstick closer in which everybody beats up on everybody else and… well… people die. This anarchic bit of black hilarity was clearly designed to provoke laughter – and is no doubt the perfect medicine for some.
But the whole picture is mired by a sort of half-heartedness, as though the filmmakers couldn’t fully commit to its devilish intentions: on the one hand gleefully serving up gallows humour and then softening it up with silly gags and pratfalling.
At times, the comedy also falls flat because it’s buried under layers of nonsensicality. For instance, Amaryllis falls for Felix, who is even more horrid than Waldo – though at least he is kind to her and enamoured with her, unlike her spouse.
The problem is that it’s so completely unbelievable that one becomes incredulous – and disbelief being the nemesis of fantasy, the moment is spoiled. Unfortunately, it’s not at all apparent that this absurd notion was perhaps intentional.
After all, it’s quite possible that the filmmakers wanted it to be absurd.
For example, Waldo and Felix break into a potential victim/client’s home late at night, undisguised, making a racket – but also not being seen or getting caught. It’s a mildly amusing notion when you think about it, but it’s not exactly explicit.
Thankfully, the cast is obviously enjoying the opportunity to play broad comedy: Price is in his element, hamming it up as Waldo, and Karloff over-emotes just enough that we know he’s doing it for laughs. It provides balance to its unsubtle bits.
But ‘The Comedy of Terrors’ remains far too corny at times to truly relish – and the laughs are too far apart to remotely make up for it. Still, it’s a picture that fans of the original episodes of ‘The Addams Family’ and ‘The Munsters’ might enjoy.
And, obviously, for fans of Price, Karloff, Lorre and Rathbone, it’s a must-see.
Date of viewing: April 17, 2017