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The coffin they carried him off in
Gort revisits THE COMEDY OF TERRORS, a comedy-horror favourite from his younger days. He didn't laugh quite as much as he once did, but found that there is still plenty to relish, particularly with the film looking as good as it does on its new UK Blu-ray incarnation from Arrow Video.
 

Waldo Trumbull is a bit of rogue. An undertaker whose mismanagement has put his business on the skids, he's taken to occasionally boosting the coffers by murdering carefully selected victims in their beds and then rolling up at their door at the very moment the servants start screeching that their master has expired. Providing reluctant assistance in this dark endeavour is Trumbull's diminutive and put-upon assistant, Felix Gillie, who's secretly in love with Trumbull's wife Amaryllis, whom the perennially drunk Trumbull verbally abuses at every opportunity. He also keeps attempting to poison his senile father-in-law Amos with a lethal potion he carries solely for that purpose. Having just disposed of another infirm unfortunate, the sensible thing for Trumbull to do would be to lay low for a while. But when his brusque landlord Mr. Black announces that he intends to evict him if he doesn't cough up for a year's back rent, Trumbull decides to make Black his very next client, but the cataleptic Black repeatedly refuses to just lay down and die.

The Comedy of Terrors was one of those films that I saw as a lad and developed an instant liking for, and you don't have to watch a single frame to appreciate why. I mean, look at the cast. You've got Vincent Price as Trumbull, Peter Lorre as Felix and Boris Karloff as Amos. At first glance it looks almost looks like a reunion of the key cast from Corman's The Raven. But wait, there's more. Amaryllis is played by Joyce Jameson, who played Peter Lorre's verbally abused wife in the comical second story of Corman's Tales of Terror, where she was wooed by a doting Vincent Price in a direct reversal of the setup here. And Mr. Black is played by none other than Basil Rathbone, who played the monstrous mesmerist Carmichael in the final segment of very same film. Coincidence? Hardly. When Corman stopped making his Poe adaptations, there were a number of attempts to recapture their success by re-casting their lead actors and brandishing Poe's name about. And both The Raven and Tales of Terror were distributed by American International Pictures. Want to guess who put up the dosh for The Comedy of Terrors? On top of that, the script was written by Richard Matheson, the very man responsible for the screenplays for both The Raven and Tales of Terror. As if this wasn't enough, The Comedy of Terrors was directed by Jacques Tourneur, the man who helmed genre favourites Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie for Val Lewton, and the brilliant M.R. James adaptation, Night of the Demon. Seriously, what horror fan on earth would not be chomping at the bit to see this film?

When I was younger I thought it was a blast. That, of course, was a long time ago, and it's been many, many years since I saw it last. But those memories were strong and positive ones: of Basil Rathbone marching around his bedroom boisterously quoting Macbeth; of Vincent Price repeatedly offering lethal 'medicine' to his father-in-law; of Price and Lorre rolling up at the door of the man they had just killed looking theatrically mournful and offering to handle the arrangements. So when Arrow announced that they were bringing this treat from my younger days to Blu-ray, I could hardly contain my excitement. But here's the thing. When I revisited The Raven (also from Arrow, thank you very much), I was surprised by how smart and how witty it still seemed. The first thing that struck on my first viewing of The Comedy of Terrors for a couple of decades was that it is without doubt the silliest film I have watched in some years.

Now before I go on I should point out that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Silly can be funny, and inspired silly can be comedy gold. Just think about that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where Eric Idle's palace guard just can't seem to grasp the concept of preventing a young prince from leaving his room until his father returns. Has me in stitches every time I see it. The silliness in The Comedy of Terrors is not quite as sophisticated, and has its roots more in burlesque and silent slapstick shorts than the Shakespearean wordplay suggested by the title. This is evident from the off in the numerous pratfalls, the use of speeded-up action, the cartoon take on reality, and performances that cheerfully throw all caution to the wind. Price in particular runs with his role as the despicable Trumbull, braying drunken insults at Amaryllis and advancing on Amos with his bottle of poison with the gait of a dastardly pantomime villain. Cementing the silent cinema link is a score from Corman regular Les Baxter that brazenly exaggerates action and emotions, accompanies body drops and flying hats with Looney Tunes slide whistles, and at its most furious plays like the accompaniment to a frantic Keystone Cops chase.

Subtle it's definitely not, and even if you prefer your black comedy understated then you're likely to be left goggle-eyed in disbelief at what unfolds here. But nestled within the daftness is a small crop of delights. Amaryllis's tone-deaf singing in particular is an absolute riot, and actress Joyce Jameson's painfully sincere rendition of He is Not Dead but Sleepeth at the not-quite-dead Black's funeral is quite possibly the funniest thing in the film. Amusingly, the ear-piercing volume and seismic effects of her explosive caterwauling fail to register with the hopelessly love-sick Felix. "Like a nightingale," he dreamily croons as a sustained high note shatters bottles and sends the family cat scurrying. It's actually Lorre who delivers the nearest the film has to a low-key performance, and while this may be partly the result of his failing health (he died shortly after the film was completed, and his face-mask wearing double is easy to spot), it nicely counterbalances the more flamboyant Price, who for all his cheerful barnstorming is clearly having the time of his life. His comic timing is also intermittently delicious – "Am I so repulsive?" Amaryllis asks him after he shudders at her touch, to which he matter-of-factly replies, after pausing briefly to regard her and weigh up his answer, "That's the word, yes." As the largely immobile Amos, the by then frail Karloff doesn't have too much to do, but still gets has his moments, delivering a comically impersonal eulogy at Black's funeral and dreamily recalling some of history's more colourful burials at the breakfast table. But in the end it's Basil Rathbone steals the film, with his gloriously energetic readings from Macbeth and repeated return to life with the words "What place is this?" worth the price of admission alone.

As loud at times as an exploding ironmongery, The Comedy of Terrors is a bit like that friend you wish would calm down just a little, but whose company you enjoy and whose jokes you sometimes find yourself laughing at in spite of yourself. I can't say I chortled quite as much as I did when I first saw it, but the sense that everyone involved is having a ball really does prove infectious. It looks terrific, has energy to spare, and despite boasting its a share of knockabout dopiness, its best moments are priceless. No pun intended.

sound and vision

Sourced from MGM via Hollywood Classics, the 2.35:1 transfer here has a few more dust spots than we're used to seeing on Arrow Blu-ray discs of past cult favourites, but in all other respects this is a lovely job. The detail is crisp, the pitch of the contrast sublime, and the colours have a richness that makes you ache for the beauty of film in a predominantly digital age.

The Linear PCM 2.0 mono soundtrack is in really good shape, boating a richer dynamic range than I was expecting, impressive clarity and only a faint trace of background hiss. Amaryllis's singing is appropriately eardrum-busting, but never distorts.

Optional English SDH subtitles are included, of course.

extra features

Audio Commentary with David Del Valle and David DeCoteau
Filmmaker David DeCoteau plays host to film historian David Del Valle, who does the lion's share of the talking here. As fans of the film and experts in their field, the pair deliver a truckload of information on the actors, the filmmakers, and American International, a lengthy section that sees discussion on the film put temporarily on hold. It's just possible that some may be irked by the number of times Del Valle references an actor or filmmaker as "my friend [insert name here]," and I certainly took issue with his claim that The Comedy of Terrors is a better film than The Raven and was actually ahead of its time. Seriously? But there's too much good stuff here to gripe about a couple of small irritations, and the duo score big points with me for remarking that Basil Rathbone was "the definitive Sherlock Holmes, until Jeremy Brett came along."

Vincent Price: My Life and Crimes (51:40)
An archive interview with Vincent Price in which David Del Valle takes him on a trip through his film career. When the wind was in his sails, Price was always one of the most entertaining interviewees out there and he's on good form here, but there's a lot less of him than I'd hoped – at least half of the running time is taken up with clips from his films or trailers for the same. There's still some very worthwhile material, particularly his views on his past collaborators – Roger Corman was very exciting to work with, Robert Feust one of the best directors he's ever acted for, and Boris Karloff was one of the most joyous men he ever met in his life. He also regards his one-man performance An Evening with Edgar Allen Poe as "probably the best thing I ever did in the way of Poe" – it's included on Arrow's Blu-ray of The Pit and the Pendulum if you haven't caught it yet.

Whispering in Distant Chambers (16:57)
I'm still not sure how I feel about these video essays by David Cairns, though others appear to really like them. This one explores the career of director Jacques Tourneur and it's certainly informative (if a little opinionated), and includes pertinent clips from a number of Tourneur's key films. But it also uses small snippets from The Comedy of Terrors to punctuate the essay and pass ha-ha comment on what has gone before. After watching it I asked my plain-speaking viewing companion what he thought. "A bit poncy," he replied, "but interesting."

Richard Matheson: Storyteller (9:37)
A short but useful interview with screenwriter Richard Matheson, who recalls The Comedy of Terrors with considerable affection. He explains how he first came up with the idea, how Jacques Tourneur came to direct, and talks about his proposed follow-on project, 'Sweethearts and Horrors', which was scripted but never filmed. He also briefly discusses his role as associate producer, contradicting David Del Valle's claim that this job title meant something back then by revealing that he did nothing in that role, claiming that "an associate producer is someone who associates with the producer."

Original Theatrical Trailer (2:34)
A busy but misleading and ineffective trailer that fails to sell the film successfully as either comedy or horror and will likely leave newcomers wondering just what the hell they are in for.

Booklet
A visually lovely booklet (the credits pages are fab) whose main feature is an essay titled Outsider Spirits: Jacques Tourneur, Richard Matheson and The Comedy of Terrors by Chris Fujiwara. It's a solid and informative read – nowhere else in the is package is it revealed that Tourneur wasn't happy with the film and that he later declined to discuss it. The main credits are also included, plus some spiffy quality stills.

summary

This time around, The Comedy of Terrors did not feel quite as funny or smart as I seem to remember it being, but is still a great deal of furiously energetic fun, and I found myself replaying favourite scenes and sniggering helplessly each time. Arrow have delivered another lovely transfer here and a typically fine collection of extra features. Oh I just have to recommend this, and if you already like the film then you absolutely have to get it.

The Comedy of Terrors

USA 1963
83 mins
directed by
Jacques Tourneur
produced by
Samuel Z. Arkoff
James H. Nicholson
written by
Richard Matheson
cinematography
Floyd Crosby
editing
Anthony Carras
music
Les Baxter
production design
Daniel Haller
starring
Vincent Price
Peter Lorre
Boris Karloff
Joyce Jameson
Joe E. Brown
Basil Rathbone

disc details
region B
video
2.35:1
sound
LPCM 2.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
English SDH
extras
Audio Commentary with David Del Valle and David DeCoteau
Vincent Price interview
Video essay on Jacque Tourneur
Richard Matheson interview
Trailer
Booklet
distributor
Arrow Video
release date
16 February 2015
review posted
16 February 2015

See all of Gort's reviews