By Will Vogler (originally published March 9, 2015)
At the Appalachian on Tuesday, March 10, 1964: The Comedy of Terrors (Jacques Tourneur, 1963, 105 minutes).
Like his father, renowned director Maurice Tourneur, Jacques Tourneur was a film director with (according to Felicia Feaster) a special talent for subtlety, sustained moods, and mystery and fantasy. Tourneur’s atmospheric style can be seen in two of his most famous movies, Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943), and are also on display in The Comedy of Terrors (1963).
The Comedy of Terrors begins at a funeral site. The solemn music, mixed with the slow movement of the camera, sets us up for a tearjerker, but as soon as the funeral is over and the mourners leave, the main characters Waldo Trumbull (Vincent Price) and Felix Gillie (Peter Lorre) dump the body from the casket, bury it, and return to their funeral parlor with casket in hand. This scene establishes the film’s black-humor tone and also begins to set up the plot.
Trumbull, a stubborn, hypocritical, drunk, owns a funeral home service, along with his wife’s father, Amos Hinchley (Boris Karloff). And Felix Gillie, the lovable, child-like, ex-convict, is Trumbull’s downtrodden pack mule. The funeral home is running low on business (hence the keeping of the “one good casket”) so Trumbull must find a way to make some money. His plan consists of killing people so he may jump to the families’ rescue and relieve them of the burden of burying the loved one. Things begin to go awry though, when one of the victims, his landlord Mr. Black (Basil Rathbone), just won’t die.
Price and Lorre, although an unlikely comedic team, do a spectacular job of making lighthearted jokes about a pretty macabre situation. The two talented actors seem to compliment and contradict each other at the same time. The Comedy of Terrors (the title of which is based off of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors) is also not their first rodeo: prior to Terrors, the two (along with Rathbone) had starred together in Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963). Tourneur directed the 1963 films and Richard Matheson wrote the screenplays for all three of them. These talented people could almost be thought of as the Rat Pack of comedy horror films.
During the making of Terrors, Basil Rathbone was actually meant to play the part of Trumbull’s elderly father-in-law and business partner, Amos Hinchley, instead of the landlord Mr. Black. Coincidentally, Mr. Black was originally to be played by Boris Karloff. While filming, they soon found that Karloff could not perform the strenuous slapstick that was to be portrayed by his character, so he and Rathbone switched roles. And speaking of strenuous slapstick, Peter Lorre’s character had to perform multiple trips and falls throughout the movie. This called for a stunt double, of course, who ended up having to wear a Lorre mask, complete with his signature bulgy eyes.
For more information about The Comedy of Terrors, see Felicia Feaster's “Jacques Tourneur Profile” on the Turner Classic Movies website.