The Comedy of Terrors is a black comedy based on a script by famed author Richard Matheson. But it is far, far more comedy than anything else, despite its thriller elements and horror tropes. In fact, director Jacques Tourneur blamed the film’s weak box office takings on the lack of horror in the film, stating that film was not offering the horror that young people were craving.
+++ Waldo Trumbull runs a small-town funeral home in 19th century New England: Hinchley & Trumbull; Hinchley being the name of the former owner, Trumbull’s now frail and senile father-in-law, Amos. Trumbull only married his wife Amaryllis in order to get his hands on the business – at least that is what she claims, and Trumbull makes no attempt to dispute this claim. Business is slow, and despite Trumbull’s willingness to cut all sorts of corners in order to save money, the funeral home is in deep financial trouble. And in order to increase income, Trumbull has decided that he needs to find more customers – by any means necessary… +++
As I said, The Comedy of Terrors is basically a pure comedy. And while there is dark humour in this film, this humour is at the same time very farcical (as is the film’s tone), making this comedy much “lighter” than you would expect from a horror comedy.
The Comedy of Terrors does not have the most exciting of looks. The costumes are good, but in terms of sets the film can never shake off that distinct artificial soundstage-feeling which can make older productions look cheap regardless of quality or budget. In a quite clever move it was decided – though I do not know by whom – to remark early on in the film that Hinchley (although he, unlike Trumbull, was successful in running the business) liked to spend all his earnings back in the day to collect all sorts of curious items. On the one hand this explains why the firm has no financial reserves to fall back on. More importantly, however, it made the set designers’ job quick and easy – they could simply grab every outlandish prop the studio owned and randomly stuff it into the sets representing the family’s home/business – an old knight’s armour, a sarcophagus, etc., etc. These sets thus resemble virtual cabinets of curiosities, and the whole thing provides an atmosphere that is at the same time amusing and bizarre.
The film’s cold open is very effective. It establishes the profession of Trumbull and his assistant Gillie, and it introduces their very low ethical standards. It is also entirely presented as a slapstick scene (not the film’s only one), thus setting the tone (if not the nature) of the film. We then progress to the next scene which displays Trumbull’s loveless marriage and his egoistic and bullying nature, while it also introduces the notion that his hapless assistant Felix Gillie is secretly in love with Amaryllis.
The humour is entirely driven by the premise – an undertaker trying to create his own demand – and its execution. As I said, the humour is chiefly of a farcical nature – in part because the main plot involves a “costumer” who is suffering from some form of recurring comatose catalepsy that everyone around him (including his doctor) mistakes for death. And for an undertaker, a body who keeps coming back to life is really bad for business. According to Chris Fujiwara’s Arrow booklet, Matheson deliberately put this theme (a man declared dead prematurely) into his script as a sort of parody, because it had been a recurring theme in the Poe material he had been adapting for Roger Corman.
The film has a solid comedic plot, and flaws (such as a case of unconvincing character development, for example) do not really matter much in a film that is basically a farce. The film’s strength, however, and (I suspect) its original selling point, is its cast.
Trumbull is played by Vincent Price, while his father-in-law is played by Boris Karloff. Add to that the great Peter Lorre as Gillie, and Basil Rathbone as Trumbull’s landlord, Mr Black, and you have a cast that is worth its weight in gold. Tourneur, however, was reportedly not happy with the cast’s approach to comedy, as he would have preferred a drier and more subtle delivery than that chosen by Joyce Jameson (Amaryllis) or Vincent Price. The cast, on the other hand, was used to working with Corman, who never knew what to do with actors and rather just let them do their own thing. In the end, Tourneur could not implement his artistic vision, and so he was not happy with the final product.
Possibly the most outstanding performance is that of Rathbone as the foppish Mr Black. Black is an eccentric 19th century gentleman who loves quoting and enacting Shakespeare, seemingly confusing fantasy and reality from time to time. It might be the Shakespearean lines, or the affected manner of speech Rathbone uses for Black, but it seems to me that Rathbone is not attempting an American accent for this character.
Today’s fame of The Comedy of Terrors is based not so much on its quality as a comedy, but on its place in the filmography of its famous cast-members. It is one of the very few collaborations of horror icons Price and Karloff; and Lorre’s untimely death in March of 1964 makes this one of his last roles, with the deaths of Rathbone (1967) and Karloff (1969) soon to follow.
The Comedy of Terrors is an amusing little film, comprised of amusing performances, but you never get really immersed in the world it tries to create. The combination of the soundstage-feel, the absurd plot, and the larger-than-life characters means that you never feel you are witnessing a series of events, but rather feel that you are watching actors enacting a play for you. But because of the film’s nature and its short running time of under 77 minutes (not counting the credits), this lack of immersion does not represent a real problem.
Rating: 7 out of 10