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The Comedy of Terrors (1964)
Finally released for home-viewing pleasure relatively recently, many reviewers call this film “the funniest horror parody ever made.” While that may be stretching it a bit, The Comedy of Terrors is an absolutely hilarious little romp well-suited to titillate any lover of the classic horror genre.
The film has the horror all-star cast of Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, and Boris Karloff. Right away, you can’t really lose, huh? Price and Lorre own a funeral parlor that is experiencing a bout of poor business. So, they err on the side of rationalism and just start killing people. Rathbone plays one of their victims who seems to have a problem with the whole dying/being buried alive process. Karloff makes a cameo as Price’s old senile father-in-law, and the delightful Joyce Jameson plays Price’s laryngitis-would-be-a-blessing, opera-singing wife – both of whom Price absolutely despises. And he occasionally tries to kill them, too. You know, just for fun.
The movie is just a matzo ball of silliness, but an enjoyable one at that. This is credited to the fine writing of Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man). He really captured the “tomfoolery” underlining the genre of classic horror, mostly noting the whole suspension of disbelief. Give me a black and white or Hammer horror film any day, but most of them really expect a lot from the modern-day viewer in the believability department as these films were made in a simpler time when people used movies as pure entertainment and didn’t care nearly as much about cinematic merit and how “realistic” it was. Matheson recognized this and gave us a solid, witty, and fast-paced script with a timeless humor that just never seems to get old. I mean, could Vincent Price and Peter Lorre digging up all their “customers” just so they could re-use the coffin even GET old? Yeah, I don’t think so either.
But we all know that a good script doesn’t mean a whole lot – especially a good comedy script – without a cast that can deliver. And, boy, could this cast do that. I’m pretty convinced that Peter Lorre could play anything, really. He does horrifying, vulnerable, and funny with absolutely no problem whatsoever. In this film he played “comically vulnerable” as Price’s bumbling, dumb-witted sidekick. But the true draw of the movie was Mr. Price’s performance. Vincent Price has this remarkable ability to pull off both comedy and horror without changing his tone whatsoever. Whether he is uttering a death threat or a snappy one-liner, he is able to use the exact same delivery. It’s like having Abbott and Costello in the same person. That is a rarity in itself. And he more than “pulls it off”, he actually excels in both. It’s quite the shame that he was never appreciated for the diverse actor he really was, instead of being pegged as “that horror actor.” It was essentially that title that ensured that he never won a Lifetime Achievement Award, despite the recommendations from many Academy-type people.
Many people say Boris Karloff was wasted in this film, and that is somewhat true. His role could have been played by any semi-comically-gifted older actor with probably little to no change in the movie’s quality. However, it also gave us the opportunity to see him play “something other than menacing” (read: a senile-old-bastard), and he does it with damn near perfect timing. His scenes are some of the best in the film, and when he gives an impromptu eulogy, well, that is one of the more giggly moments in the film.
Yes, I really used “giggly” in a horror movie review. Let’s move on.
And while we’re at it, let’s give some props to Basil Rathbone for his excellent use of physical humor. I personally never believed he had it in him. His slap-stick role is not how I normally like my Rathbone – I prefer the stern, straight man Rathbone that can be oh-so-mean – but he did a fine, fine job.
Now, don’t get my wrong, this film is not “earth-shattering” and barely steps outside the line of Basic Comedy 101. Yes, the script by design is perfectly timed and well-paced, but from a pure comedy writing point-of-view, there’s nothing that stands out as super fresh or even “new”. And if I was writing this to comedy-writing-aficionados, I would probably be writing a completely different review. But, as I am writing this to Fans of Psychos Who Carry Axes (or possibly you are a psycho who carries an ax -- I don’t know what you do in your spare time), many of you would likely appreciate how remarkable it is that four stereotypically horror or otherwise unfunny actors can pull of a comedy film about the very genre they are known for with this amount of skill. As I’ve mentioned before, a solid script can only get you so far.
The DVD of The Comedy of Terrors is a double feature with The Raven, and provides a couple nice little features. In fact, it was here that I learned that a second movie with this cast was in the works, which was basically parodying circus-freak movies. Unfortunately, several of the cast members died before it saw production. This is a shame because this cast and the writing styles of Richard Matheson seemed to be a solid combination, and the movie was likely to be an enjoyable hoot. But, at least we got this charming little film to enjoy. If you love the days of scream queens and horror actor juggernauts, this is the movie you should pick up. It will probably shortly become an old favorite.