Vincent Price. Peter Lorre. Boris Karloff. Basil Rathbone. All in one movie. What’s not to love?
“The Comedy of Terrors” is a comedy/horror (not sure there’s that much horror in it, really) that is a great deal of fun. It was directed by Jacques Tourneur (‘Cat People’, ‘I walked with a zombie’) and the screenplay was written by Richard Matheson (writer of many stories, novels, and screenplays, including ‘The Shrinking Man’ and ‘I am Legend’.) With such a capable director and writer, as well as a wonderful cast, it can’t go wrong.
Vincent Price plays undertaker Waldo Trumbull whose business is going bankrupt. (They use the same coffin over and over, dumping the body into the grave with no coffin once the mourners leave.) Peter Lorre is his employee, Felix Gillie, blackmailed into staying by Trumbull because he is an escaped convict. Trumbull usually spends his days either drowning himself in alcohol or threatening to poison his father in law (Boris Karloff in a wonderful role as the very deaf and not all there actual owner of the business). But when the owner of the property (Basil Rathbone) threatens to evict them if a year’s worth of rent isn’t paid the next day, Trumbull comes up with a great idea to get some money. He will drum up business by killing people. This, naturally, doesn’t prove to be as successful as he hoped – surprisingly they don’t get caught killing people but they don’t get paid either. So, after the Mr Black (Rathbone) starts getting especially annoying, it suddenly occurs to Trumbull that killing Mr Black would be a much better idea. That’s when things start getting really strange.
I don’t want to give spoilers away, but it is when the plot to kill Mr Black starts that the movie really takes off, going from amusing to hilarious. Rathbone proves he is just as good at chewing scenery as Price and Lorre. Rathbone mostly did straight roles, and his first appearance in the movie seems to be another straight foil to the weirder characters. However, the audience finds out that there is very little that is normal about this guy. Rathbone throws himself into this role and gives an entirely enjoyable performance – it seems he was enjoying himself too.
Script and direction merge to create a very funny situation:
Waldo Trumbull: [during the struggle with Mr. Black] He bit me! The son-of-a bit me!
Felix Gillie: [he and Trumbull are sitting on the coffin, trying to keep it closed and referring to Mr. Black, who’s inside the coffin] For a man in his condition, he certainly has a lot of energy!
Waldo Trumbull: The stubborn crackpot! I could have sworn that he was dead!
Felix Gillie: It’s about time!
Waldo Trumbull: I’ve never had such an uncooperative customer in my whole life!
Karloff, sadly, did not have a large part in this movie, but he certainly made up for it when he was on screen. His best scene is when he is supposed to be giving a eulogy, and keeps on referring to ‘what’s his name’ and ‘you know who’ because he has absolutely no idea who’s in the coffin. In fact, he cannot even remember the word for coffin initially, coming up with a string of increasingly imaginative synonyms before he remembers the word he wants. The same scene includes Joyce Jamison as Mrs Trumbull, who believes she has the talent to be a great opera singer (and really doesn’t.) She shrieks her way through a hymn, while Trumbull wishes her vocal cords would snap and Gillie (who has a crush on her) insists she sounds like a nightingale. The song lyrics add to the humour as they are unintentionally (to the singer) prophetic.
Jacques Tourneur was a maker of B films and knew how to do things on the cheap. He was no less capable for that, which is why so many of his films remain popular to this day. I get the impression with this movie that he knew he had a cast that could ham it up if given the opportunity, and he just let them go for it. It works and is part of what makes this film so much fun.
Matheson’s script is funny but is also very black. Price’s character of Trumbull has absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever. He’s a bully to his employee, abusive to his wife, a drunk and a murderer. Without giving too much away, rest assured Trumbull gets his just desserts by the film’s end. The other characters, too, are very well written. Lorre is the typical bullied offsider, but the worm will eventually turn, and he will get to walk away with what (or rather who) he wants. The whole story is put together in a way that is spoofing itself and the genre.
If you can find this movie, I do recommend it. It’s a good chance to watch a fun horror spoof with a brilliant cast.