Our spine-chilling story begins within the nightmarish confines of a rundown funeral parlour. Things haven't been going too well for the ruthless and menacing undertaker Waldo Trumball and his creepy assistant Felix Gillie. Not enough people seem to be dying these days and they're running low on customers and rent. Maybe it's time to take things into their own cold hands and drum up a little business themselves?
Few chuckles, fewer chills
- The Comedy of Terrors review by Count Otto Black
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The three stars of this film had worked well together in Roger Corman's weird but thoroughly enjoyable comic fantasy "The Raven", so it seemed reasonable to cast them all again in another vaguely Edgar Allan Poe-ish mildly horrific comedy. Unfortunately, instead of Corman, American International Pictures hired Jacques Tourneur. His best-known films are all strange, dreamlike tales in which the protagonists experience slowly mounting unease that gradually builds to real terror and mortal danger, such as "Cat People", "I Walked With a Zombie", and "The Night of the Demon", and he liked to make his supernatural horrors so subtle that the studio sometimes forced him to insert explicit footage of the monster in case people felt cheated by the ambiguity as to whether there was a monster in the movie at all. Which is the exact opposite to the kind of style you need if you're making a comedy.
Not surprisingly, Tourneur's direction shows no understanding of comic timing whatsoever, and all the slapstick is completely flat. Zany cartoon music and speeded-up action are thrown in here and there as if these things are funny in themselves, sometimes at wildly inappropriate moments. The tone lurches randomly from nonsense that wouldn't be out of place in "Carry On Screaming" to genuine nastiness, such as Vincent Price ruthlessly smothering an old man with a pillow, but there's not very much real comedy, and almost nothing you could call terror. The characters are nearly all defined by one feeble, repetitive joke; Vincent Price's wife thinks she can sing but she can't, Peter Lorre is a burglar who is lousy at burglary, and so on. As for Boris Karloff, he's utterly wasted as a senile old fool who gets less screen time and character development than a cat called Rhubarb.
Much of the comedy derives from people doing odd things just to be wacky, such as John Barrymore (who suffers the indignity of being billed lower than Rhubarb) in the rôle of a man who goes into cataleptic trances where he recites Shakespeare while attacking his own furniture with a sword, thus endangering Peter Lorre in a ludicrously contrived way. As for Vincent Price, giving one of his worst performances ever, he's an alcoholic, presumably an attempt by the writers to give an unpleasant and unfunny character more bits of comic business, since it has very little bearing on the plot. This fails to amuse because the scriptwriters seem to have thought that drunks were so intrinsically hilarious that having Price stagger and slur his lines would bring the house down all by itself. Also, very few actors are good at convincingly pretending to be drunk, and Vincent isn't one of them. Lorre is his usual odd self and gives the best performance in the film, and Price sometimes manages to bring his usual touch of class to a poorly written part, but Barrymore overacts to the point where even Price seems restrained by comparison, Karloff's barely in the movie, and nobody else matters all that much. Rhubarb's quite good though.
Audio Commentary with author and film historian David Del Valle and cult director David DeCoteau
"Vincent Price: My Life and Crimes": The previously unreleased, alternate cut of the 1987 David Del Valle/Vincent Price interview in which the actor looks back over his extraordinary career "Whispering in Distant Chambers: The Nightfall of Jacques Tourneur": A specially-commissioned video essay by David Cairns looking at the various themes and stylistic motifs which reappear throughout the director's work
"Richard Matheson Storyteller": An archive interview with the Comedy of Terrors writer
Original Theatrical Trailer
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