The Comedy of Terrors-attachment0

The Comedy of Terrors

Movie Information

The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Comedy of Terrors Thursday, Sept. 9, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville. Hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.
Score:

Genre: Horror Comedy
Director: Jacques Tourneur (Night of the Demon)
Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Joyce Jameson, Basil Rathbone, Rhubarb
Rated: NR

Horror specialist Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, Night of the Demon) stopped off at American International Pictures in the mid-‘60s and knocked out a couple Vincent Price movies, The Comedy of Terrors (1963) and War Gods of the Deep (1965). The latter is fairly negligible, but The Comedy of Terrors is a solid horror comedy—and with Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone, it boasts a cast that’s hard to beat. It deals with a low-grade funeral parlor run by Price, who isn’t above recruiting customers by killing them. Some of it is a little forced—all of it is marred by the typically overbearing Les Baxter musical score—but it’s a lot of fun, especially Basil Rathbone as a Macbeth-quoting “customer” who just won’t stay dead.

There’s a tendency to view The Comedy of Terrors as inferior to Roger Corman’s horror comedy from the same era, The Raven (1963), which is also from the same studio and with mostly the same cast (minus Rathbone, but with a young and very awkward Jack Nicholson). I’ve always found it the other way around—not in the least because of the presence of Rathbone in Comedy. I should confess that it probably helps that I saw Comedy as a 9-year-old on the big screen and only caught The Raven years later on TV. Plus, Comedy made an indelible impression on me owing to the circumstance that the morning after my parents took me to see it Peter Lorre’s obituary was in the newspaper. Whatever the case, I prefer it by a large margin.

The film is somewhat hampered by the usual American International production values—or lack thereof—and its often flat-looking soundstage “exteriors,” but that’s pretty much part and parcel of the era. Unlike many color horror films—straight and comic—of the era, there’s a good deal of atmosphere generated by the simple fact that this one doesn’t appear overlit. But let’s face it, nothing about the film is meant to be taken seriously: Within a minute or two of its opening, Price and Lorre unceremoniously dump a body out of its coffin and into the grave and then begin filling it in in fast-motion. (Think of them as the first recyclers, since they’ve been using the same coffin for 13 years—and as Lorre later notes, “It’s good for the plants.”)

Richard Matheson’s screenplay—and possibly a bit of ad-libbing—is a tremendous asset. Memorable lines tumble out with delightful regularity—made all the more memorable by the stars’ delivery of them. Even simple bits like Lorre assessing the very unstraight straightness of the coffin he’s attempting to build—“Pretty close”—become little golden moments. Lorre is, in fact, a preposterous treat throughout the film. (When Price refers to him as a “confessed bank robber,” Lorre feels compelled to argue, “I never confessed it—they just proved it, that’s all.”) But everyone is good and everyone has at least one splendid moment—whether it’s Karloff delivering the eulogy for Rathbone (“Mr. You-know-who”) or Rathbone taking exception to being put back in his coffin (“I find your actions inimical to good fellowship”). Plus, you get a guest bit from Joe E. Brown and the presence of Rhubarb the cat (whose real name was Orangey, but usually went by the name of the cat from his most famous movie).

Yes, the film is occasionally too broad and the gags built on Joyce Jameson’s ear-splitting attempts to sing opera wear thin pretty quickly. But all in all, The Comedy of Terrors belongs on the short list of great horror comedies.

As usual, the film itself starts at 8 p.m., but starting at 7:40 p.m. there will be a showing of “Invisible Terror,” chapter four of the 1939 Bela Lugosi serial The Phantom Creeps, a Betty Boop cartoon and a few odd—occasionally downright peculiar—trailers.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

3 thoughts on “The Comedy of Terrors

  1. Ken Hanke

    So that’s where that line comes from! I’ve been wondering for years

    The late Richard Valley once had me make audio files from this film to use as announcement sounds on his computer (I used them too for a while and I may still have them). “I consider your actions inimical to good fellowship” was the buddy-list exit sound. Price’s “What in the name of all that’s holy is that thing?” (said upon seeing Lorre’s attempts at coffin building)was the buddy-entrance sound. And Ratbone’s “What jiggery-pokery is this?” was the mail alert.

  2. Matthew Bradley

    Interestingly, Matheson lifted Karloff’s hilarious eulogy almost verbatim from his short story “The Funeral,” so that by the time the latter was adapted as an episode of NIGHT GALLERY, he had to write a new speech for the Count to deliver. The film was one of Matheson’s favorites, and he never tires of telling how much fun the actors were off the screen, or about how Rathbone and Karloff were supposed to play the opposite parts but switched roles because Rathbone–despite being the older of the two–was in better shape. Tourneur also directed Matheson’s memorable TWILIGHT ZONE episode “Night Call.” For further information, see my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4216-4), tentatively due out in early October.

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