The Comedy of Terrors (1964)

Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone star in an entertaining Shakespearian horror/comedy from AIP. MGM USA R1 DVD.

The Film

Mr Trumble (Vincent Price) is the partner of a failing funeral business owned by his elderly father-in-law Amos Hinchley (Boris Karloff). When their landlord, Mr Black (Basil Rathbone) gives them a final ultimatum - to pay their bills or be out on the streets within 24 hours - Trumble comes up with a diabolical scheme, and along with his assistant Felix Gillie (Peter Lorre), he sets out to increase the firm's business with a murder spree...

The sixth of the AIP gothics, Comedy of Terrors was another change from the existing format of the series. The series creator, Roger Corman (conspicuous by his absence here) had tried hard to avoid the films becoming repetitive clones - hence the straight forward Poe based horror of House of Usher (1960) and The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) were followed by the comic Poe twists, Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963), while the return to straight horror, The Haunted Palace (1963), was based on a work by H.P. Lovecraft (although ultimately sold as a Poe film by AIP). Just as The Raven was a comic, original story with links to Poe - for Comedy of Terrors, writer Richard Matheson provides an original tale containing a variety of classic Shakespeare influences.

The script is very well written from the start, with an opening prologue showing the undertakers emptying a body out of its casket before throwing the body into the grave and heading home with the now re-usable coffin. The mix of characters is highly entertaining - from the evil and frequently drunk Mr Trumble; his oppressed wife; her frail and hard-of-hearing father (played for laughs as often as possible); Felix Gillie, a man with a heritage of villany who just wants to go straight, and Mr. Black who seems almost Dickensian on his first appearance before becoming a perfectly Shakespearian undying character. While The Raven often seemed confused over its comic direction, Comedy of Terrors is much more assertive, with non-stop verbal and visual comedy, on every level, running throughout. Continually unpredictable the film builds to an effective climax and wonderful ending.

Director Jacques Tourner was best known for his atmospheric horrors of the late 1940s, and by the late 1950s was shooting Sword and Sandal films in Spain and low budget television series in the US - working with AIP Gothic regular DoP Floyd Crosby, he shows that he still had some strong directoral talent here, with some excellent comic timing and a few atmospheric scenes remniscent of the Val Lewton and early AIP gothic horrors. The film was edited by the AIP producers, with some rather crude sped-up sequences that are not quite in keeping with the often verbal nature of the comedy, but do not overly harm the film. Les Baxter again provides an effective and clever soundtrack.

What makes Comedy of Terrors stand out most, however, are the excellent performances from all of the lead cast. AIP's home-made-star Vincent Price is top billed as usual and gives a fantastic performance as Trumble - managing to play a drunkard wife-beater and yet still be a lovable rogue - his comic timing is absolutely perfect. Peter Lorre again plays his straight-faced stooge and convinces as the mild-mannered, pushed around Gillie. Horror icon Boris Karloff was suffering from terrible leg pains by this point and so he was only able to play the relatively minor role of Amos Hinchley, however he does so very convincingly and looks genuinely old, not just made-up. The original Sherlock Holmes, Basil Rathbone, gives a wonderfully over-the-top thespian performance as Mr. Black, quoting Shakespeare in his bright red dressing gown and chewing more scenery even than Price himself. Joyce Jameson as Trumble's wife gives a good performance and Joe E. Brown (best known from comedy classic Some Like it Hot (1959)) has an amusing cameo as a graveyard caretaker.

Although not the best of the AIP Gothics (Masque of the Red Death (1964) takes that crown), Comedy of Terrors is certainly the best of the comic entries - more assured than The Raven and running longer than the comedy chapter in Tales of Terror. Jacques Tourner gives a good directoral turn and Richard Matheson brings a good script, but it is the fantastic performances of the quartet of horror icons in the lead roles that makes this film so entertaining. Ultimately however, it was the highly promoted comedy aspect that saw the film perform less sucessfully at the box office than the pevious films and Roger Corman would be brought back to return the series to classic Poe territory later in 1964. Comedy of Terrors is recommended to AIP Gothic fans, and fans of Price, Lorre, Karloff or Rathbone.

In Brief
Anyone famous in it? Vincent Price - the star behind most of the AIP horrors including Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Boris Karloff - the iconic Frankenstein and star of many of the great Universal films of the 1930s and 1940s.
Peter Lorre - best known for the lead role in Fritz Lang's M (1931), and star of many Hollywood films.
Basil Rathbone - best known as Universal's Sherlock Holmes, and star of Son of Frankenstein (1939).
Directed by anyone interesting? Jacques Tourner - director of several impressive horror films in the late 1940s for Val Lewton including I Walked with a Zombie (1943) he also helmed iconic Film Noir Out of the Past (1947).
Any gore or violence ? None.
Any sex or nudity? None.
Who is it for? Recommended to AIP Gothic fans and fans of any of the lead actors.

Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colour.
The print quality is strong with no print damage and only light grain.
Audio English mono - sounds fine.
Subtitles English, French and Spanish.
Extras The disc includes:
  • Interview with writer Richard Matheson, nicely edited with shots from the film, some interesting information including hints of an unproduced third comedy film with the actors.
  • Original Theatrical trailer.
Availability Previously available as a single disc release, now only available in a double-bill pack with the The Raven DVD on a dual-sided disc. Part of the MGM Midnight Movies series.
Region Region 1 (USA, North America) - NTSC
Other regions? Optimum UK and German DVD releases - lack the interview feature.
Cuts? Fully uncut. English language print.



All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 12th November 2006.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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