Originally published on So So Gay on 17 February 2015.
With a set-up that will draw some sympathy with modern audiences thanks to these austere times, undertaker Waldro Trumbell (Vincent Price) is heading toward dire straits as the family business begins to dry up in 19th century New England. His home life is no better, as the war of words with his wife (Joyce Jameson) – whom he only married to get control of her father’s (Boris Karloff) funeral business – is an ever present blight on his day-to-day existence.
As he continues to drown his sorrows at the bottom of a glass in between attempts to poison his father-in-law, Waldro’s landlord (Basil Rathbone) threatens him with eviction if the year of unpaid rent isn’t settled within the following 24 hours. Thanks to more than a little help from his bumbling and downtrodden assistant, Felix Gillie (Peter Lorre), Waldro finds a murderous solution to both his money and troublesome landlord problems.
Gathering a collection of cinema greats into one film is always an exciting prospect for audiences, and certainly on paper The Comedy of Terrors sounds like a classic from a bygone era. Unfortunately, what it has in talent it lacks in comedic punch. Written by respected screenwriter Richard Matheson, the film is intended as a parody of the Edgar Allen Poe movies that were popular from this era (many also starring Price), but it fails to raise more than the occasional laugh. Rathbone clearly relished this comedic role, while Price is in his element and has Lorre as the perfect foil, though Karloff is rather wasted in his fairly incidental role.
The script is certainly the film’s biggest problem, since it’s fundamentally not all that funny for a comedy, though it does have its moments. Price’s thoroughly unlikable and sarcastic Waldro has some good zingers, and the slapstick – mainly done by Lorre, or more correctly by his heavily employed stunt-double, due to the actor’s ailing health – is generally well, and not overused. The screen veterans ham it up to the hilt and add a campy sensibility to the rather weak screenplay that at least ensure The Comedy of Terrors’ barely 80 minute runtime is an enjoyable enough ride.
True to form, Arrow Video have done themselves proud with the quantity of extras included with the crisp Blu-ray version of the film. An alternate cut of an interview with Price from 1987 is the obvious jewel of the set, lasting around 50 minutes and sees the charming film legend discuss his career with historian David Del Valle. There’s also an interesting video essay by David Cairns on Tourneur’s directorial style, though it’s rather flatly narrated and sporadically and strangely catty in places. Similarly, the audio commentary track included is informative, though could be almost lifted away from the playback of the film.
The accompanying booklet is always a strong component of Arrow’s releases and the one here is the typically pleasing blend of film stills scattered around a mini-essay about the film’s importance and further behind-the-scenes facts. One criticism of the extras as a whole is that a number of factoids get rehashed and repeated across the various features, but it’s a minor gripe to be levelled at an another otherwise solid installment from Arrow Films.
The Comedy of Terrors is out now on Blu-ray. Assets courtesy Arrow Films.