Question : when is a Roger Corman Poe film not a Roger Corman Poe film? Answer: when it has all the elements of a Corman Poe film – a Richard Matheson script, Vincent Price in the starring role, the usual tech crew – but substitutes horror/noir journeyman Jacques Tourneur for Corman in the director’s chair and drops the Poe influence. This was the case with The Comedy Of Terrors, another comic riff on Corman’s gothic formula that shapes up as a solid film to pair with Corman’s own comic-gothic The Raven.
The anti-hero of The Comedy Of Terrors is undertaker Waldo Trumbull (Price). He’s a meanspirited drunk who constantly insults the bad singing of his wife (Joyce Jameson), constantly threatens to poison his father-in-law (Boris Karloff) and always belittles his hapless ex-crook underling Gillie (Peter Lorre). Business isn’t so good but Trumbull occasionally perks things up by bumping off a villager so he can have a business infusion at his funeral home.
However, things get tricky when Trumbull gets behind in rent and landlord John F. Black (Basil Rathbone) shows up demanding to be paid in full within twenty-four hours. Trumbull has no intention of paying and enlists Gillie’s help in bumping off Black, hoping to collect on his personal fortune in the process. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know Black is a cataleptic and it is thus difficult to know when he is dead. The begins a game of undead cat-and-mouse that mixes laughs with thrills as Trumbull finally meets his match.
If you liked the gothic-goes-comic approach of The Raven, you’ll probably enjoy The Comedy Of Terrors. It takes the comedic tone of that film and pumps it up to slapstick heights: the first cue of this approach is the pre-title sequence, which suggests a strange marriage of Charles Addams and Mack Sennett as Price and Lorre unceremonious dump a corpse out of its casket and bury it in a sped-up sequence so they can reuse the casket.
Matheson revels in the opportunity to go at full comic speed, packing his script with darkly humorous banter (Price’s putdowns of his wife are consistently funny) and slapstick situations, particularly Rathbone’s many returns from the dead. It might be a little too aggressively silly for some tastes but others will enjoy the way it pushes things in blackly comic directions, particularly a finale that suggests a sendup of the kind of Jacobean massacre situations that often ended Shakespeare’s tragedies.
Tourneur’s direction is brisk, respecting the rapid-fire tone of Matheson’s script and further benefits from the use of Corman’s regular “Poe film” crew (cinematographer Floyd Crosby, art director Daniel Haller, composer Les Baxter). He also weaves in the occasional surprising atmospheric bit you wouldn’t expect from an overt comedy like this: the best might be an impressive closing sequence where the house’s cat elegantly glides through the wreckage left by the finale.
Most importantly, The Comedy Of Terrors benefits from a stellar cast of classic horror vets who use their theatrical styles to comedic ends here. Price leads the charge with a deliciously nasty lead performance that suggests a sleazy, layabout brother to his tormented Poe-film heroes. Lorre deadpans nicely as his perpetually put-upon underling and Karloff has fun in a small but colorful role where he gets apply his sinister countenance to the actions of a hapless old man. Rathbone also chews the scenery with vigor, particularly when his back-from-the-dead character gets to reenact famous Shakespeare speeches.
In short, The Comedy Of Terrors is a fun romp that will appeal to anyone who likes broad comedies as much as the Corman/Poe gothic horror cycle. Horror and humor are just two sides of the same coin – and everyone involved here has a blast sending up their work in a way that is ingratiating.