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Ominous October: The Comedy of Terrors (1963)

It's that time of year when people seek out their favorite scary movies to give themselves a chill. We will be reviewing spine-tinglers from the classic movie era. Today Adam and Samantha discuss The Comedy of Terrors.

ADAM WILLIAMS: This is the story of Hinchley & Trumbull Funeral Parlor. Founder Amos Hinchley (Boris Karloff) is too senile to do much, so drunken miser Waldo Trumbull (Vincent Price) runs things with the help from his pathetic diminutive assistant (Peter Lorre). Trumbull is unhappily married to Hinchley’s daughter (Joyce Jameson), an aspiring singer with a dreadful voice. The company is heavily in debt to the landlord Mr. Black (Basil Rathbone), so they intend on making him a client post-haste.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: Could you ask for a better cast? Oh yeah, throw in a cameo by Joe E. Brown and a credited role by Rhubarb AKA Cat from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The Shout Factory release has an introduction by Price who told how much he loved making comedies and how much fun the cast had on the set. It absolutely shows. AW: This film sprung out of the monster craze that had adolescents subscribing to Famous Monsters of Filmland, tuning into The Addam’s Family and The Munsters, staying up for Shock Theater, and catching the latest from Roger Corman and William Castle at the local bijou. This is the mania that Joe Dante captured so beautifully in 1993’s Matinee. While I can understand how living through this era made an impression on baby boomers like Dante, I don’t have much patience for some of the cutesy horror that this era brought about.

SG: I grew up watching these kooky, offbeat, sometimes over-the-top movies with my dad and sister. Seeing things like this reminds me of good times sharing a bowl of popcorn popped in bacon grease or a pepperoni and mushroom pizza from Ange's and staying up past my bedtime. This is the kind of movie you CAN watch with the kids. They can delight in the spooky setting while feeling they’re along for the ride watching a grown-up movie, and we can become kids again with familiar cast members who feel like old friends. AW: I prefer horror without the safety net of send-up. That’s not to say that horror films shouldn’t be funny, but they need to capture an otherworldliness—to make the viewer feel like the floor is collapsing underneath. I would point to a couple films made just a little later in the decade as examples of horror comedies done properly: 1967’s The Fearless Vampire Killers and Spider Baby. The former artfully conjures up a weird universe of Eastern European horror motifs, and the latter is unnerving not only because of its subhuman cannibalistic characters but because of the unexpected pathos provided by Lon Chaney, Jr. Neither are aimed at kids, so probably not the best choice for family night.

I must break the news about The Comedy of Terrors gently. It’s not Vincent Price’s best film for American International Pictures—it never approaches the delirious heights of The Masque of the Red Death. Likewise, Rathbone’s turn in “The Case of M. Valdemar” in Tales of Terror is a superior performance. Richard Matheson’s literate screenplay for that anthology and A.I.P.’s House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum elevated these low budget pictures into perennial classics. The Comedy of Terrors is not even the best Boris Karloff film of 1963, Mario Bava’s chilling Black Sabbath holds that honor. Jacques Tourneur earned his place in the annals of horror film history with I Walked with a Zombie, Cat People, and Night of the Demon. This film is a mere footnote in his illustrious career. Peter Lorre died soon after the film was released. By then, his best performances were recognized as venerable classics. For all the combined talent involved in The Comedy of Terrors, it’s almost shocking that it’s so unfocused and barely amusing. SG: I like that this film has the same polish and grandness of the Hammer horror films, only this one is done for laughs. It is almost like horror in drag. Price is grand and authoritative and his timing is very very good. Karloff manages a showy performance without moving around or speaking much. (His arthritis prevented it.) And what could be more decorous than Rathbone maniacally quoting Shakespeare as he wields and ax?

"For a man in his condition, he certainly has a lot of energy." -Lorre

AW: This movie is like Count Chocula cereal. SG: We have a case of Count Chocula in my house right now (minus a few boxes). AW: At this point, it’s almost as traditional for Halloween as candy canes are for Christmas. Like this movie, the marketing team commodified established horror figures, stuffed the product full of cheap filler material, and unloaded it upon poor, susceptible monster movie fans. OK, this comparison might be a bit harsh; The Comedy of Terrors is a bit more complex than those stale marshmallows. Peter Lorre’s pining for Trumbull’s wife approaches melancholy. Those wet, bulging eyes and his pitiful delivery of the line “I’m so sensitive!” after bumping his head is a soulful spot in an otherwise shrill movie. The handsome sets are properly enveloped in shadow and the widescreen photography is suitably atmospheric. This movie reaches out to that little trick or treater still in me, but ultimately, I feel this is hollow, unfulfilling junk food. SG: The movie is far from perfect. I found the jokes about Mrs. Trumbull’s singing to be tedious. How many times must we be subjected to glass breaking when she sings before it is supposed to click that she’s a bad singer, as if our own ears couldn’t tell us that? But some of the gimmicks I would ordinarily groan about, like the ragtime music as the film played double time, worked to create an overall mood of frivolity that sucked me in. There are some dark jokes hidden beneath the fog including an allusion to rape and lots of casual treatment of murder. Price brazenly tries to poison Karloff repeatedly, who then berates his daughter for not letting him take his “medicine.” This running gag is my favorite overall and it has a nice payoff at the end.

AW: I wish I could share the enthusiasm. When I started thinking about how to review this film, I felt a compulsion to say something like, “Well, even if it’s not the best movie, it’s fine enough just to spend an hour and a half with the titans of terror hamming it up.” But this would be dishonest. I don’t take pleasure in degrading a film with this lineup of actors, but to give this movie even a lukewarm review would dilute the greatness these men achieved. They are the ones that set the standard. If I’m seeking thrills, I would rather revisit Rathbone in Kind Lady, Lorre in The Face Behind the Mask, Karloff in The Black Cat, or Price in The Witchfinder General—to name but one favorite from each. This film is best forgotten. Two stars. SG: This is a later film than we would usually review or show at the convention but I thought it was a good choice for this month given the beloved cast. I think it serves as a bridge between yesteryear and what was to come in entertainment. There are elements of Abbott and Costello and also premonitions of Monty Python. I delight in both styles of comedy. It is also a treat to see actors playing against type and enjoying themselves in a role. Clearly these were talented and versatile men who retained their popularity well into their old age. Four stars.

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