Peter LorreRichard MathesonVincent PriceBasil Rathbone
The Comedy of Terrors
Medium: film
Year: 1963
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Writer: Richard Matheson
Keywords: horror, horror-comedy
Country: USA
Actor: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Joyce Jameson, Joe E. Brown, Beverly Powers, Basil Rathbone, Orangey, Alan DeWitt, Buddy Mason, Douglas Williams, Linda Rogers, Luree Holmes
Format: 84 minutes
Website category: Horror pre-1970
Review date: 18 August 2009
It doesn't work. It's got a jaw-dropping cast, it's written by Richard Matheson and it's directed by Jacques Tourneur, the man who did the likes of Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie for Val Lewton, yet it doesn't work. You see, it's trying to be a horror-comedy.
The Raven (1963) had done well earlier that year and this was an attempt at more of the same, reuniting Matheson with the three stars of that film, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff. Unfortunately Karloff's arthritis made him incapable of taking the role they'd wanted for him, but that just means they brought in Basil Rathbone too. Karloff's still here. He's just less active than he was going to be.
All this is promising. I expected to have a great time watching this film and it certainly wouldn't be true to say that I hated it. These are some of my favourite actors and they've been given full licence to go over the top. Nevertheless they're aiming for that most dangerous of goals, horror-comedy, and going for it in the broadest possible strokes. There are comedy boing sound effects and the film speeds up when a character falls over. It's slightly less classy than one of the lesser Carry On films, but more importantly its humour value is down there with Carry On Columbus. You know how normally with bad comedy, you merely fail to laugh? You can see that what you're watching is at least technically comedy, but it doesn't work for you. However this is one of those rare films that crosses over into anti-laughter, as if you're watching Dalek Komedi from the planet Skaro and you're missing the subtitles or something. They gurn, they shout at each other and fall over. You watch in bewilderment, or at least I did.
In fairness, very occasionally I was amused. I smiled at the bit where Price and Lorre knock some statues down a staircase. I also like the basic idea of the story, with Vincent Price as an undertaker who regards murder as a way to increase his customer base. However that's about it.
Matheson needs taking out and beating with a stick. I used to like him, too. Where in the name of all goodness did he get the idea that convoluted English is funny? He clearly seems to think that it's hilarious to have characters spouting indigestible slabs of would-be incomprehensible dialogue, but in fact all he achieves is to make it harder for his actors. Basil Rathbone of all people struggles with his opening scene. Rathone, I tell you!
The performances are... okay, I mean Price. I adore Vincent Price, but he's better than this. Sorry, but he's coasting. Even when the script's giving him good lines, he's not getting anything out of them. Take the scene where Price is dragging ex-housebreaker Lorre into someone's house as his accomplice in murder. "There must be a little more honest way to conduct a funeral business," complains Lorre. "I might expect that kind of talk from a criminal," replies Price. That should have been funny, but on the screen it doesn't work. However on the upside, we're still talking here about Vincent Price in full cry and you can't accuse him of not putting all his energy into it. I relished his "Oh, how sad," for instance. He's playing a drunken, abusive son-of-a-bitch and we're not even meant to be liking him, but he's a lot of fun when he's hypocritically pretending to be the perfect gentleman.
Peter Lorre is exactly as he was in The Raven, to be honest. He's a nervous little fellow, untrustworthy but easily cowed. I liked his response to being called a confessed bank robber. "I never confessed. They just proved it."
Boris Karloff is the deaf old grandad. It's a throwaway role, but it's still fun to see him in it. He also gets a cool bit at the end, which is nice. However the real tragedy is that he wasn't able to play the Rathbone part, since that would have been a beautiful fit with his established screen iconography. The role's a man who can't be murdered. Rathbone's good in the part, with the best comic timing of the four main stars, but there's nothing particularly unstoppable about him. Even when he's going berserk with an axe later on, one's main thought is why Price and Lorre didn't just hammer tent pegs through his skull or something. Karloff though was Frankenstein's Monster. He and Lugosi are the definitive men who can't die. It would have been awesome to see him coming back from the dead time and again to chase Price from (literally) beyond the grave.
Because of all this Rathbone's role is bigger than I'd expected, incidentally. He's always good value, even if he does struggle in that first scene. Half of his character's dialogue seems to be great chunks of Macbeth, incidentally, which one could perhaps try to impose upon this film as a literary parallel. Price and Macbeth are not dissimilar in their activities, while one could even claim to see an equivalent of the porter's scene that involves a graveyard attendant.
That's it for the actors you'll have heard of. Someone you might recognise without being able to place the name is Joe E. Brown, a well-known actor and comedian here making his last film appearance. He's certainly got a distinctive face. I knew I knew him as soon as he showed up, but I had to look him up afterwards to discover that he was also Jack Lemmon's millionaire in Some Like It Hot. There are also a couple of buxom actresses, Joyce Jameson and Beverly Powers, which the film's keen to make as clear as possible short of actual nudity. Finally there's Orangey, a cat who's here going under the alias of Rhubarb. I was baffled by that cat's presence while I was watching the film, since he's in a whole bunch of scenes to no apparent purpose, but apparently he was a talented screen actor in the hands of his owner, the animal handler Frank Inn. Orangey had a profilic screen career in the 1950s and early 1960s, winning two Patsy Awards (no, really) for his title role in Rhubarb (1951) and for his work alongside Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). He's also in Village of the Giants as "Giant Cat". Gosh.
In summary, this film leaves me cold. However I have to admit that a number of people have written online reviews in which they say it's hilarious, so there was undoubtedly a heavy personal element in my reaction. I can only call it as I see it. I found Matheson's overdone vocabulary pointless and I saw nothing to laugh at in the unpleasant home life of Price, Lorre, Karloff and Jameson. I liked the ending, though. That was cool. Muffing that would have probably made the whole film unwatchable, but a good ending can make up for a lot.
If you like Roger Corman films, watch this. If you love the great classic horror actors, consider watching this after a drink. However if you're looking for a comedy that's going to make you laugh, consider your personal tastes and whether you have a sentimental attachment to this kind of genre before even dreaming of putting it on.