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.