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Horror Farce Features Titans of Terror
The Comedy of Terrors was made in 1963 and released in 1964, starring some real heavyweights of the horror and thriller genres: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone. The thing is, it's not a horror movie or a thriller. Just as the title suggests, it is a comedy.
Price stars as Waldo Trumbull, a drunk who runs a funeral parlor he inherited from his father-in-law, Amos Hinchley, played by Karloff. Peter Lorre plays his not altogether enthusiastic partner. They run the business by cutting as many corners as possible, like reusing the same coffin over and over. (They dump the body into the open grave when no one is looking and cart the coffin off to be used for the next customer.)
Comedy Set in Funeral Parlor
Trumbull is unhappy with his life and his wife. Amaryllis is played by Joyce Jameson, and she's a thwarted singer. She is mainly thwarted by the fact that she sings like a cat who had its tail stepped on. She and Trumbull live unhappily with her father (Karloff).
Meanwhile, Peter Lorre's Mr. Gillie is in love with Amaryillis. She may not be able to carry a tune, but she is quite pleasant to look at, and he doesn't seem to mind her singing.
On top of his other problems, Trumbull hasn't paid his rent in a year. His landlord, played by Rathbone, is understandably upset by this. He gives Trumbull an eviction notice if the rent isn't paid in 24 hours.
The Plan: Murder For Money
Trumbull enlists Gillie in a plan to make some money, a plan it seems they have executed before. Trumbull plans on murdering an old man, then being on hand to make the funeral arrangements. Gillie isn't entirely on board, but is coerced due to being a felon on the run.
Their first murder attempt fails, and then Trumbull receives notice that the matter of his back rent has been turned over to his landlord's attorney. This is when Trumbull decides to kill two metaphorical birds with one stone.
He's going to murder his landlord, get money for burying him, and avoid having to pay back rent. Unfortunately, the landlord is not the most compliant of victims, refusing to actually be dead whenever they believe him to be so.
Vincent Price at His Snarky Best
Vincent Price is absolutely fantastic in this movie. He is mean and snarky, and you can even believe that he would resent being married to a shapely young woman like Joyce Jameson. He is constantly trying to poison her father, berates Gillie at every given opportunity, and wastes all their money on drinking. You can tell Price had a lot of fun playing this character.
Peter Lorre is Poor Schmuck in Love
Lorre seems custom-made for his part, as well. His Mr. Gillie is the unwilling sidekick who placates Trumbull out of loyalty to Amaryllis, but is ultimately done in by his own ineptitude. He is not really a villain at all. Honestly, he's just a poor schmuck trying to make the best of a bad situation and hoping to someday win the heart of Amaryllis.
Karloff's Character Underwritten
Karloff isn't given much to do for most of the movie, but is great in his limited role. He's much funnier than I thought he would be, and his one big moment—the eulogy for the old man Trumbull eventually murders—is hysterical. It shows what a great actor Karloff was, regardless of genre.
Basil Rathbone eats scenery like there is no tomorrow. He is perfect for the imperious, Shakespeare-quoting landlord. There is not a bad performance in the whole movie, even the smaller roles are performed wonderfully. I was a little worried when Amaryllis' cat, Cleopatra, was given a screen credit at the beginning of the movie. (The cat was played by a feline named Rhubarb if you are curious.)
Corny, But Fun
Released by the same company that did Price's Edgar Allen Poe movies, it looks fantastic. Amazingly, with that much talent packed into one movie, no one gets overshadowed. The jokes are a bit corny at times—remember, it was made in the sixties—but are still pretty funny.
In the end, everyone gets what's coming to them, and though you can see the final gag coming from a mile away, it still brings a chuckle. If there's one flaw in the movie, it's that Karloff should have had more to do. But, that doesn't detract from an otherwise excellent movie.
© 2022 Gracchus Gruad