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The Comedy of Terrors
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The Comedy of Terrors

Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone were icons of a peculiar kind. They were, it must be emphasized, very talented and highly trained actors whose careers spanned a wide variety of roles. They were also, however, representatives of a style of diction and theatricality that had been passed by in the 1960s, the age of Marlon Brando, Elvis, and Steve McQueen. That is not to say that time had passed them by--for one thing, their work in classics of the horror film remained in popular circulation on television, and in turn that kept them in the public eye. It also meant they stayed in the public eye specifically as icons of horror, where the mixture of nostalgia, theatricality, and the horror movie tropes of the day inevitably pushed these figures into the realm of self-parody.

Vincent Price in particular remained a successful marquee name, starring in an ongoing cycle of colorful thrillers loosely based on the works (or at the least the titles) of Edgar Allan Poe. He also spent the decade spoofing himself on TV's Batman and Get Smart, or films like Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965). Peter Lorre, once chilling as the child murderer in Fritz Lang's M (1931), became comedy relief in movies like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) or Muscle Beach Party (1964). Like Price, Boris Karloff continued to make appearances in serious, if low-budget, horror films, while also poking fun at his image in Bikini Beach (1964), or Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966).

American International Pictures (AIP) had struck somewhat unexpected box office gold with Vincent Price's star turn in 1960's House of Usher. This led to a follow-up, and then another, and another, throughout the decade. The regular screenwriter of these adaptations was the great Richard Matheson. There is an entire generation of Americans for whom Richard Matheson's version of Poe is more definitive than Poe's. In 1962, Matheson and AIP had turned out a film called Tales of Terror, an anthology picture comprised of three unrelated shorter Poe adaptations. One of those segments was derived from Poe's "Cask of Amontillado," and brought together both Vincent Price and Peter Lorre in a sequence with a strong comic edge. The two had such chemistry together, and the idea of leaning into the sense of comic self-parody seemed to fit so well with the times, Matheson put together The Raven (1963) for director Roger Corman, as a comedy vehicle for Price, Lorre, and Boris Karloff.

Based on the popularity of The Raven, Matheson started writing The Comedy of Terrors. It was not a Poe film--one could argue whether many of the other AIP Poe adaptations were truly Poe films either, but in this case there was no pretense of riffing on an extant Poe tied it in so closely with the others as to make no practical difference.

The premise finds Vincent Price and Peter Lorre as undertakers who set to committing murders as a way of drumming up business. Boris Karloff plays Vincent Price's father-in-law, while Basil Rathbone plays an intended victim of the undertaking scheme who just won't stay dead. As originally planned, Karloff was to play the deathless victim and Rathbone was to appear as the father-in-law, but as production began Karloff asked to swap roles. He was feeling his age, and his creaky knees were not up to the more physically demanding aspects of the victim role.

Meanwhile, Lorre did not entirely play his role either. The part called for running around and clamoring over rooftops in a way the then-60-year-old found challenging. Instead, a fair bit of Lorre's putative screen time was provided by stuntman Harvey Patty in a Lorre mask. As it happened, Lorre passed away shortly after making the film--his final official screen credit was in the Jerry Lewis film The Patsy (1964).

Roger Corman, who had directed the many Vincent Price/Edgar Allan Poe vehicles up to this point, did not take the director's chair for The Comedy of Terrors. This time, that honor fell to legendary director Jacques Tourneur. He was a master craftsman of stylish, suspenseful classics such as Cat People (1942), Out of the Past (1947), and Night of the Demon (1957).

Confronted by critics who were baffled by the career decisions that led one of the inventors of film noir to undertake a silly horror movie spoof, Tourneur gave a variety of defensive interviews and press statements at the time explaining he had been drawn to the project as a "cynical, cynical comedy, a little bit in the old René Clair tradition." He also explained the film was "deliberately aimed at the mature thinking people who appreciate satire" and was therefore over the heads of the usual AIP audience of young people.

Interestingly, other members of Tourneur's team also seemed to be thinking of the project in terms of a generational gap, between themselves on one side and the alien world of 1960s teen culture on the other. Vincent Price specifically remarked on how movies had "changed and we were all sort of edged out by the Brandos, the Jimmy Deans and the people who didn't speak English anymore. Suddenly we had to go into other areas of the business, like the costume pictures and the places where we would be understood."

Matheson wrote what he intended as a follow-up to The Comedy of Terrors, to reunite its all-star horror icon cast along with Tallulah Bankhead in "Sweethearts and Horrors." That project was never made. Instead, AIP quickly returned Roger Corman to the helm of the ship, and the Poe cycle returned to its more sober roots with The Masque of the Red Death.

By David Kalat

Sources:

Roger Corman with Jim Jerome, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime.

Chris Fujiwara, Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall.

Gary J. Svehla and Susan Svehla, ed., Vincent Price

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