‘You’re invited to a funeral’
Welcome to the Hinchley & Trumbull funeral parlour, the only establishment of its kind that has found the secret of increasing business – by furnishing its own corpses! From Jacques Tourneur, director of the horror classics, Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and Night of the Demon, comes the 1963 horror spoof, The Comedy of Terrors, starring four masters of the macabre – Vincent Price, Peter LorreBasil Rathbone and Boris Karloff.

‘What place is this?’
Inebriate undertaker Waldo Trumbull (Price) is running a New England funeral home business owned by his ageing father-in-law (Karloff)… straight into the ground. Hounded by his penny-pinching landlord Mr Black (Rathbone) for non-payment of rent, Trumbull and his put upon assistant Felix Gillie (Lorre) hatch a plan to boost business. But murder is not their forté, especially when their latest ‘client’ refuses to stay dead…

‘Every shroud has a silver lining when old friends get together for a real
swinging blast of grave robbery… poisoning, and multiple mayhem!’

So declared the promo poster for American International Pictures’ horror spoof, The Comedy of Terrors, which famously brought together four great names from the horror hall of fame. In the early-1960s, AIP were riding high with their winning formula of director Roger Corman, star Vincent Price, screenwriter Richard Matheson, composer Les Baxter, et all. Following their full-on Colorscope Gothic horrors, The Fall of the House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum, AIP added some comic relief in 1962’s Tales of Terror, in a segment called The Black Cat, whose highlight was an improvised wine tasting scene between Price and Lorre. Because the two spooks gelled so well, director Corman gave Price and Lorre the chance to do it all over again in his 1963 fantasy spoof, The Raven. Out of that was born a gruesome twosome comedy duo that were like an Abbott & Costello for the drive-in generation. Wanting to tap those funny bones again, AIP gave Matheson free reign to conjure up another vehicle for them. The result was The Comedy of Terrors (originally called Graveside Story), which was shot over 15 days, starting 4 September 1963, and released in US cinemas on 22 January 1964.

‘Comedy
and terror are closely allied. My job as an actor is to try and make
the unbelievable believable and the despicable delectable’ Vincent Price

As the roguish Waldo Trumbull, Price is at his ‘delicious boozy hammiest’ – according to the New York Herald Tribune – and has a whale of a time making the most of Matheson’s venomous dialogue – in particular his sardonic put-downs on Lorre’s wanted fugitive Felix (who is a terrible coffin-maker, I might add), while their slapstick misadventures evoke Laurel and Hardy – Price even gets to reappropriate their famous catchphrase: ‘A fine mess you’ve made of things again!’

Sadly, this would be the last time that the two pals got to act together, as the 59-year-old Lorre was in poor health during the shoot (his regular stunt double Harvey Parry did all of his action scenes wearing a mask), and died just two months after the film’s release. Fittingly, it was Price who delivered the eulogy.

 

Interestingly in this film, Price and Lorre reverse the roles they played in Tales of Terror, and again there’s Joyce Jameson playing a buxom mistreated wife with a drunk for a hubby. As Amaryllis, an unfulfilled opera star with the ‘vocal emissions of a laryngitic cow’, Jameson hits a real high with her ‘off-key’ singing during a funeral service, while her verbal sparring with Price is eminently quotable.

 

Veterans Rathbone and Karloff are also game for a laugh in this Arsenic and Old Lace-styled affair (and shares a similar structure as that classic 1941 play which famously sent up Karloff’s horror screen persona). Rathbone is exceptional as the Shakespearean-spouting cataleptic who refuses to ‘shuffle off his mortal coil’, while he also gets to play up his thespian image and swashbuckling days (the sword play being an homage to 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood.)

At 76, and suffering from arthritis, Karloff was not up to playing Mr Black, a role which was originally offered to him. But as the endearingly senile Amos, who somehow manages to avoid the poison that Waldo offers him at every turn, Karloff is only one who keeps the farce from taking full flight.

 

The downside to Tourneur’s film, however (it was the director’s second-to-last feature before some TV work and then retiring), is that it’s rather stagey and old-fashioned (especially for the 1960s teen crowd that it was aimed at). It remains, however, a firm favourite of mine – a gleefully ghoulish slapstick affair with a classy never-to-be-repeated cast of old Hollywood greats.

This fine caricature by Jack Manning was available as part of AIP’s original marketing campaign.

DID YOU KNOW?
Richard Matheson scripted a follow-up called Sweethearts and Horrors, that was to feature the fearsome four once again, but it was shelved due to Lorre’s death and the film’s poor box-office takings. The unfilmed screenplay ended up being released in 2009 as part of Matheson’s collected works, entitled Visions Deferred.

THE SCORE
The music is by celebrated composer Les Baxter (who also did the US scores for Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath and The Evil Eye in 1963, as well as Corman’s The Raven). The complete mono session which was recorded in November 1963 at Goldwyn Studios was uncovered from the MGM vaults last year and released on a now sold out CD.

 

RHUBARB | THE CAT IN THE HOUSE OF UNHOLY HORROR
Cleopatra is played by one of Hollywood’s most celebrated animal stars, Rhubarb (aka Orangey) – a 12-pound marmalade tabby who won twoAmerican Humane Association’s PATSY awards for 1951’s Rhubarb and 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (in which he has almost seven minutes of screen time), and who also appeared in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and Village of the Giants (1965). In The Comedy of Terrors, Rhubarb gets an inspired scene in the closing credits.

With the 1963 horror farce, The Comedy of Terrors, now in HD, here’s what you get in the Arrow Video UK Blu-ray/DVD combo release.

 

THE 2015 ARROW UK BLU-RAY/DVD RELEASE
The Comedy of Terrors is presented its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 with mono 2.0 audio (uncompressed PCM on Blu-ray). The HD master was made available by MGM via Hollywood Classics, and includes optional English subtitles.

THE EXTRAS
• Audio commentary with David Del Valle and Rapid Heart TV’s David DeCocteau. Del Valle dedicates this commentary to actress Joyce Jameson, a great friend to the film historian who tragically took her life in 1987, aged 54. My full analysis of the commentary is coming soon.

Vincent Price: My Life and Crimes: This is the unseen alternate cut of the 1987 David Del Valle interview that was previously released on DVD in 2002 as The Sinister Image. An historic testament to Price, despite the ageing video source material.

Whispering in Distant Chambers:
17-min video essay by David Cairns, exploring the recurrent themes (like the ‘nocturnal walk’) and stylistic motifs of Tourneur’s work. This is quite informative, nicely narrated by Fiona Watson, with Cairns quoting the director.

Richard Matheson Storyteller – Comedy of Terrors This featurette on the late screenwriter also appears on the Shout! Blu-ray and on the older MGM Midnite Movies DVD.

• Original US theatrical trailerThe film looks racier and scarier than it actually was in this unrestored trailer.

• Collector’s booklet featuring a critical analysis of the film by Chris Fujiwara, author of Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, plus archive stills and posters. Nice litte primer for classic horror newbies and film studies students.

• Newly commissioned artwork by digital artist Paul Shipper. See more of his work (here)

OTHER RELEASES
Also available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory, an imprint of Shout! Factory, as part of their Vincent Price Collection II bundle, which includes a Iowa Public Television introduction with Price, but no audio commentary. Blu-ray reviewers have praised Arrow’s transfer over this one, both for its excellent print and audio transfer, and for the fact that a couple of seconds that were missing in the Shout! release are present here. A German Blu-ray was also released in May 2013.

 

The Comedy of Terrors commentary with David Del Valle and David DeCoteau | It’s well worth checking out!

Film historian David Del Valle is the go-to guy when it comes to doing commentaries for these Vincent Price Blu-ray re-releases (his commentary for the Shout! release of The Return of the Fly is up for a Rondo Award this year), and he’s always entertaining, with lots of candid stories about the cast and crew, many of whom he has interviewed and become friends with over the years. Rapid Heart TV’s David DeCoteau, who is best known for making cheap and cheerful homoerotic teen horrors, is hugely knowledgeable about the old Hollywood days. Together they make a camptastic team on Arrow’s audio commentary about the 1963 classic, The Comedy of Terrors.

Del Valle dedicates the commentary to Joyce Jameson (1932-1987), who regarded The Comedy of Terrors as the crowning achievement of her career (she often held parties with her gay friends where she’d show the film). The actress, a favourite of Clint Eastwood, tragically took her life at the age of 54, and was also the subject of a chapter in Del Valle’s memoirs, Lost Horizons Beneath the Hollywood Sign (a must-read btw).

The cast, crew and the film’s history are all covered in great depth, with particular emphasis on Peter Lorre, whose last film this was. Del Valle relates how the acclaimed actor was dying while making the film, which required a stunt man wearing a look-a-like mask to stand-in for him. Lorre, who can be seen struggling during a dance sequence, died two months after the film was released (23 March 1964), and it was Price who delivered the eulogy at his funeral.

Unlike The Raven, whose success was based on the surprise that it was a comedy and not another Gothic horror, The Comedy of Terrors was a flop (though it didn’t lose any money for AIP). Del Valle relates how veteran director Jacques Tourneur was disappointed that no one got his ‘homage to René Clair’, despite it being a better made film than The Raven.
Advancements in digital technology have given AIP’s 1960s Poe/Price films a new lease of life on HD and Blu-ray. Closely observed, the imperfections really stand out, but they possess a nostalgic charm; while the talented artists involved have made them unique, especially art director Daniel Haller, whose deceptively opulent sets breathed lush, vivid, intricate life into AIP’s cobweb cinema. Haller gets a big thumbs up from the boys in the commentary.

Also discussed is how these 1960s AIP films weren’t highly regarded by Hollywood, but are now part of film history as they marked the final curtain call for iconic horror stars like Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone, who all got to act together in an era undergoing great change.

Del Valle’s stories about Vincent are always priceless, and he supplies one that’s particularly personal to me – and I’m sure also to lots of other fans: how Vincent believed that if people started reading Edgar Allan Poe after seeing one of his films, then he felt he had done his job as an actor. I’m one of those, so thank you Vincent.

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