Following The Raven (1963), Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre engaged on a rather comical tour to promote the film. A series of events and bad weather left Karloff exhausted and he returned to England for much of the rest of the year. However, he was coaxed back to the set for a smaller role in another American International Pictures release, The Comedy of Terrors (1963).
Karloff was reunited with co-stars Vincent Price and Peter Lorre again as well as Basil Rathbone, whom he had worked with back in 1939s Tower of London. Rathbone had just recently returned to the horror/mystery/suspense genre in the more serious effort Tales of Terror (1962). Here, Rathbone clearly approached his character seriously with tongue planted firmly in cheek with the end result being classic. However, had Boris Karloff’s health been better, the film clearly would have had a different look.
Originally, Karloff was cast to play the part of landlord John F. Black, Esquire. The role required an excessive amount of moving and jaunting around which Karloff could no longer do. His emphysema, arthritis and bad back were making simple movements painful at this stage of his career and Karloff was wise enough to know what he could and could not do. So, he accepted the role of the elderly Amos Hinchley instead, which worked out well for everyone.
Vincent Price stars as Waldo Trumbull, the owner of a funeral parlor who married the lovely Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson) in order to secure the funeral business owned by her father Amos Hinchley. Amos is deaf and quite senile, usually seen slurping his soup and constantly complaining that Amaryllis never lets him have his “medicine”, which is actually poison Waldo is trying to give him to finally kill him off. Waldo prefers to drink rather than show his wife any attention, which is quite the opposite intention of his criminal assistant Felix Gillie (Peter Lorre), who clearly loves and adores Amaryllis but is too scared to do anything about it. Now, Waldo and Felix can best be described as a Laurel and Hardy version of Burke and Hare, seeking out bodies so they can perform the funeral service, reusing the same coffin time and again. But the rent is due and Mr. Black is threatening to take action unless it is paid. This forces the duo down a very hilarious path that only Stan and Ollie could have pulled offer better.
Unlike The Raven, The Comedy of Terrors is played strictly for laughs. Writer Richard Matheson wisely went that route and it paid off for the most part. There are some moments where the comedy seems forced and others where it becomes a little tedious. Director Jacques Tourneur (The Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie) directed his next-to-last theatrical film and while he didn’t reach the level of his days with Val Lewton, it added to the overall star power of the movie. Rathbone is wonderful as the landlord who never dies while continuing to shout out lines from Shakespeare. Price and Lorre do what they do best, clearly working together with no effort at all and what they accomplish is gold. Comedian Joe E. Brown provides some funny scenes in the cemetery. And, of course, we have a few buxom beauties to entertain the fathers in the audience while the kids want more dead bodies.
Karloff has a smaller role in the movie but he shows off his comedic talents better than in any other film. Every time Amos appears you know you are going to get a laugh. While a third film was talked about, it never transpired. Sadly, Peter Lorre would pass away the following year in 1964 from a stroke at the age of 59, making only two more films after The Comedy of Terrors. Basil Rathbone would die less than four years later at the age of 75 in 1967 from a heart attack and Karloff would die in 1969.
While I prefer The Raven, The Comedy of Terrors is a wonderful companion piece and well worth adding to the collection. The two films are usually paired together, as they are on the new Vincent Price Collection II on Blu-ray. Check out the trailer and prepare to be entertained.