Friday, November 28, 2014

Comedy of Terrors

Comedy of Terrors (1963)
Dir. Jacques Tourneur
Written by Richard Matheson
Starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Joyce Jameson, Basil Rathbone

This is a lightweight but charming little dark comedy with a ridiculously overqualified pedigree of horror greats all working close to the top of their game. Price is Waldo Trumbell, a gloriously drunken bastard who runs a funeral home owned by his senile old father-in-law (Karloff), much to the chagrin of his hateful wife (Joyce Jameson, DEATH RACE 2000) and his ex-con assistant (Lorre). Business is direly slow and the pompous landlord (Rathbone) is about to evict them, so Trumbell devises a fiendish plan to increase their customer base a little more efficiently than if nature were to take its course. Eventually, they get the idea to kill two birds with one kill, and the landlord himself becomes their next victim. Except, he proves frustratingly difficult to finish off, given an unusual medical condition which exactly mimics death but allows him to spring back to life unexpectedly, hours later.

 The script here is genuinely funny, with caustically witty dialogue by Richard Matheson (THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT) that is absolutely devoured by the talented cast. Price is so deliciously mincing that he makes Lorre look like the native English speaker, but it’s all to good effect. Price and Lorre are a great mismatched comedy team, even if Lorre (completing his transformation into an egg-shaped humpty-dumpty lookalike and here deep into his morphine days) looks a little tired.* They’d done a bunch of movies previously (in fact, this one essentially re-teams the cast from THE RAVEN) but this one practically pitches them as Laurel and Hardy, especially appropriate considering Price’s lanky height and Lorre’s newfound Eggman physique. There’s a good chemistry here, and the two ricochet off each other with a highly amusing antagonism that makes the most of Price’s villainous pompousness and Lorre’s bug-eyed wretchedness in a way that brings out both their considerable charms even if it doesn’t require a lot of stretching. Karloff is good too, in a much smaller role which doesn’t require a lot from him, and Jameson succeeds handily in the shrewish wife role (usually a pretty thankless, borderline misogynistic trope, Matheson’s script gives her a little more to do and she does nicely with it). But the real winner here is Basil Rathbone (billed after the cat “Rhubarb”**), who gives a big, silly slapstick performance that just shows how much we waste our great thespians by casting them in serious arty bullshit all the time.

What’s really cool about this one, though, is that although it’s a comedy, pretty much everyone involved here made their careers in horror. Price, Lorre, Karloff, and Rathbone were all horror movie staples since time began. Director Jacques Tourneur was an old RKO guy who directed some of Val Lewton’s best productions (CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) and of course Matheson --in addition to scripting stuff like THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE-- was a prolific horror writer, authoring I Am Legend  among about a million short stories which were adapted into everything from TRILOGY OF TERROR to Tobe Hooper’s DANCE OF THE DEAD to numerous Twilight Zone episodes. These guys are all pros at this horror thing, and in nearly every way that matters, COMEDY OF TERRORS is an honest-to-god horror movie. It looks and progresses exactly like one, but with quippy dialogue and zany antics in place of glowering. So despite the yuks, this has a very authentic horror feel to it, from the cinematography to the narrative (which could easily be adapted into a straight horror movie) to the murderous finale. In fact, even though it’s played for laughs (SPOILER) Rathbone’s ax-wielding rampage at the end is probably more genuinely suspenseful than half the crappy horror movies I watched this month. The clever interweaving of comedy with real horror chops heightens the whole experience significantly, making the comedy funnier and the thrills more compelling. The only person who seems to have missed the memo is composer Les Baxter (himself a veteran of Corman-produced horror like THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM and THE DUNWICH HORROR) who disappointingly scores it a little on-the-nose as a straight comedy. In one scene they come close to going full Benny Hill which kinda cheapens the effect by trying too hard. The rest of the movie is secure in the idea that we get it; the score seems less secure that we’ll get the comedy unless we’re beaten over the head with it.

But mostly, this one is a delight. Fun, broad performances all around, a ingeniously twisty script with a real wit but also a keen understanding of horror structure, and a strikingly handsome visual style from Tourner and Academy-award-winning cinematographer Floyd Crosby (TABU). I’m not sure it necessarily took this many acknowledged masters of horror to make something so silly, but who can complain at such a bounty? This is easily among the best horror-comedies ever made (not that it has a ton of competition) and a real treat for anyone with a soft spot for classic horror.

*To be fair, he bring it up when he needs to, and even does some physical comedy.

** Which apparently isn’t its real name anyway; the Cat is named “Orangey” and I guess “Rhubarb” is its sometimes-stage name. Not sure what the deal was with that.

The Hunt For Dread October

  • SEQUEL: None, though there was talk of a follow-up before the film failed to become a major hit.
  • REMAKE: None
  • FOUND-FOOTAGE CLUSTERFUCK: No, quite fetching
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Price, Lorre, Rathbone, Karloff.
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Despite the ax, no limb loss
  • SLASHER/GIALLO: I think the ax-wielding rampage at the end would count.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): Yes, Price and Lorre concoct a diabolical scheme to bump off locals to save their ailing funeral parlor.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: low-mid, lesser known considering the cast, but still fairly widely available.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Always double-tap, just to be sure.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Comedy, check. Terrors, check. 100%

This review is over, but I like Price's expression here so much I can't rob you of this image.

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