Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone? All in the same movie? I figured it would be worth it even if the movie turned out to be a turkey. But The Comedy of Terrors, directed by Jacques Tourneur, is not a turkey, in large part because of its delightful cast, but also the script by Richard Matheson, who seems to take special joy in an highly extensive vocabulary. It is a black comedy that does not seem to be to everyone’s tastes (some find it belabored – it does have a somewhat relaxed pace), but gave me some of the biggest laughs I’ve had all year. The film spoofs everything from grave-robbing (think Burke and Hare) to Shakespeare. There’s actually a lot of Shakespeare references, starting with the title of the film (based on Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors”).
Mr. Waldo Trumble (Vincent Price) is the junior partner of Hinchley & Trumble, an undertakers business. But Hinchley (Boris Karloff) is so deaf and senile that he doesn’t seem to be much aware of what is going on (like the fact that Trumble keeps threatening to poison him). He has a wonderful collection of memories of how people have been embalmed throughout history, though. Trumble’s much-abused wife, Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson), is also Hinchley’s daughter and has illusions about being an opera-singer (she’s terrible) and plays the organ when necessary at funeral receptions. And Felix Gillie (Peter Lorre) works for Trumble as his assistant and secretly adores Amaryllis (love, in this case, is not so much blind as tone-deaf). Completing the household is the cat, Cleopatra (Orangey), who gets to watch all the murderous shenanigans.
Murderous because Trumble is a drunken cheapskate of an undertaker and the business is in decline (they’ve been using the same casket for thirteen years – they dump the body in the grave and save the casket). But he’s found a way to generate business when he needs it. He simply kills someone (smothers them with a pillow) and then fortuitously shows up at their house and offers to bury their dead while the grieving family is still confused. This backfires, however, when the young widow of the man he kills leaves him with the body and makes off with her inheritance (“Is there no morality left in this world?” Trumble bemoans).
This is awkward because Trumble’s landlord, Mr. John F. Black (Basil Rathbone), is dunning them for an entire year’s worth of rent that has gone unpaid. But Trumble rises to the occasion and conceives of the idea of killing to two birds with one….well, pillow, as he says. He will simply kill Mr. Black (and for some reason brings the cat along with him on his mission). At which point the movie could have been titled “He Won’t Die!” Mr. Black suffers from catalepsy and although his servant warns the doctors that he’s been declared dead before, the doctor insists that Mr. Black is indeed dead and ready to be buried. But he won’t stay dead. Trumble and Gillie have to keep shoving him back in his coffin (Mr. Black protests: “I consider this inimical to good fellowship.”).
The cast is fantastic. Initially, I thought Trumble’s venom towards his wife was a little off-putting, but gradually it became very funny (no one says a snarky line quite like Vincent Price) and his ultimate fate pretty much atones for all his verbal abuse, since everyone gets the last laugh on him. Peter Lorre is always perfect, with his sad eyes, quite sensitive, despite being a former lock-pick who spent time in jail (“Why did I ever escape from prison? It was so peaceful there.”). But he doesn’t like murder and only helps because Trumble blackmails him and because he wants to be near Amaryllis.
Boris Karloff is the doddering old man who remains completely oblivious to what is going on around him and Karloff plays him with great comic timing. I love his rambling eulogy for Mr. Black
And so, my friends, we find ourselves gathered around the bier of Mrs… er… Mr… You Know Whom… this litter of sorrow, this cairn, this cromlech, this dread dochma, this gart, this mastaba, this sorrowing tope, this unhappy tumulus, this, this… what is the word?… this… er, coffin! Never could think of that word. Requiescat in Pace, Mr… um… Mr… the memory of your good deeds will not perish with your untimely sepulture.
Joyce Jameson more than holds her own in a movie filled with horror heavyweights (however hammy). My favorite scene with her is when she sings a song at Mr. Black’s funeral, “He is not dead, but sleepeth. He is not dead at all,” which she sings emphatically and off-key, totally unaware of any irony, much to the distress of Trumble and Gillie.
But the real scene-stealer, if there can be one with such a cast, is Basil Rathbone as the Shakespeare quoting landlord who will not die. He especially likes to quote from Macbeth. He gets more returns from the dead than a cat. Every time he wakes up from a fit of catalepsy, he asks “What place is THIS?” which sounds impressive when coming from within a coffin. The poor cemetery keeper (played by Joe E. Brown) is frightened out of his wits when he hears, issuing from within a crypt, a hollow voice (hollow because its coming from the coffin) asking “Is this a dagger which I see before me?”
He sputters and quotes and even slashes with a sword at one point and his death scene at the end is truly epic. In fact, the film’s end is epic, in a zany, crazy way. Mr. Black emerges from his crypt to wreak revenge on the house of Trumble & Hinchley, like a Shakespeare-spouting, raging, psychopathic ax murderer. It’s totally unforgettable. As 1000 Misspent House and Counting says in regards to the film, “the movie ends with a pair of lovers mistakenly believing each other dead a la Romeo and Juilet, and a pile of corpses (some mispresumed, some actual) deep enough to rival Hamlet.”